"We were starving," recalls Ellington. "We asked ourselves what we could do to generate more income. It occurred to us that maybe we could generate some income off the walls."
The couple began exhibiting the work of regional artists in their restaurant and changed the name to Kathleen's Art Cafe. The art sold and food sales picked up. Eight years later, their repertoire of art and artists has gone international and Kathleen's Art Cafe is expanding.
"We usually have two artists showing at one time, one in each of our dining rooms. When we add our third dining room, we'll have room for another artist."
Ellington doesn't advertise for art, most artists find him, usually referred by a friend who's exhibited at the restaurant. Ellington books his shows six months in advance, but also keeps a list of 'on-call' artists who can supply work on the spur of the moment, just in case a scheduled artist doesn't show up.
Ellington admits that he's purchased some of the art exhibited at his restaurant for his own personal collection. "In a lot of places, abstract is the real big ticket, but I like still lifes. At home I have a collection of dining-room scenes on my walls." He's even loaned one of his still lifes to the Longview Museum of Fine Art. (Yes, Longview has a museum of fine art.)
The art at Kathleen's sells for anywhere from $100 to $4,000 and the restaurant takes a percentage. "I don't take a standard gallery fee because we don't do any promotion. Our deal is that we take no responsibility," he says. "The artists hang their own work. We don't make any money unless we sell the art."
The restaurant has displayed drawings, paintings and photography, and even some ceramics, but Ellington is disappointed that his current location doesn't allow him to exhibit sculpture. "I tried once to put sculptures out on the sidewalk here, but the city came out and really rained on my parade."
He's solved that problem by purchasing an old house and two acres of land in Colleyville for a second restaurant. "We're going to fix that location up like an old Hill Country house and I'm going to pour pads all over the lot and sell sculpture. Of course, we'll still have art inside, too."
Deep Ellum's Art Bar and Cafe also opened in 1988 and from the beginning, visual art was an integral part of its concept.
"We're interviewing for a new curator right now," states general manager Tobin Bell. "The curator usually knows the local artists, and we turn over our exhibits about every four to six weeks."
Artists exhibiting their work at the Art Bar, whether in Deep Ellum or at the new Addison location, keep 50-70 percent from the sale of their work. The rest is split between the curator and the house.
"At least twice a year we hold a charity fund-raiser," Bell says. "At 'Pillow Talk,' artists and designers create pillows and we sell them at a silent auction. We do the same thing at 'Easter Parade' in the spring auctioning off hats." Last year, the proceeds from the fund-raisers benefitted EASL, the Emergency Artists Support League.
Barbara Carter, a local art director who curates for alternate-space exhibitions, got her start showing her own paintings at Terilli's on Lower Greenville. She began alternating her work with the work of other artists, and pretty soon other restaurants were hiring her to perform the same service.
"Restaurants are a good venue for new and emerging artists," Carter says, "because they're exposed to hundreds of people who wouldn't otherwise see art."
She regularly visits studios and artists looking for professional presentation and a continuity of style. "It takes me about five to eight hours a month per restaurant to arrange an exhibition. I keep 30 percent from the sale of each work of art. It's a lot less than galleries keep and fairer for the artist."
One of her recent discoveries is Julia Posey Forsyth. Carter has booked Forsyth to exhibit this spring at Primo's Bar and Grill on McKinney. Forsyth also has an exhibition running at the new Cafe Brazil location in Richardson.
"I got my degree in fine arts from Baylor in 1994," Posey explains. "I'm using the restaurant showings as a chance to get some exposure. Hopefully, some gallery owners will eat at these restaurants."
The work she has on display falls into two styles--a collection of abstract oils with fluid, amorphous shapes and a more folk-art-inspired series whose characters teem with dark colors and thick impasto brushwork.
So far, Posey has received two commissions on the basis of her work on display in the restaurant. Cafe Brazil keeps 10 percent from the sale of works there, with prices usually ranging from $200 to $1,500.
Once people enter a restaurant-gallery, they become a captive audience to the art displayed within--though not always an appreciative one. "I've had boogers wiped on my pieces, but that's what happens when your work is thrown out at the public like that. They didn't choose to see your art like they would have in a gallery setting," says photographer Chris Howell, who admits his work is provocative.
In Our Neighborhood, a November 1995 showing of street-scene photographs, which included Howell's work, was initially scheduled to hang at the Deep Ellum Cafe for three weeks. The show was extended, a week at a time, to five weeks.
He included several erotic photos in the exhibition, as well as a five-part series depicting a bloody knife fight. "One piece got pulled. It was a female nude with the pubis showing." A second similar photo stayed up.
The photos in the exhibit were black-and-white, 5"x7" surrounded by 8"x10" mats. "People really had to look at the knife-fight photos to decipher what was going on," says Howell. "But, I did sell several of those."
He admits that he'd do things differently next time. "I think big, simple pieces do better in a restaurant setting. After all, it's annoying to put that much work into something and have it not be noticed."
Barbara Carter hasn't seen much vandalism of artists' work. She believes most of the patrons respect the art even if they don't appreciate or understand it. "In eight years of coordinating exhibits for Primo's, they've only lost two pieces, and they paid for the loss outright," Carter adds.
In spite of the occasional risk, the practice of rotating art installations in restaurants appears to benefit the restaurant owners and the artistic community. And with gallery and museum attendance down and restaurant attendance up, it puts the art right where Dallas residents are most likely to see it--next to their meat and portobellos.