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Art in Vancouver’s coffee culture

It’s a scene that many experience daily: the anxious whirr of the espresso machines, the smell of freshly brewed coffee…

By Yvonne Robertson , in Thinking Outside the Gallery: Alternative art in Vancouver , on March 15, 2010 Tags: , , , , ,

A painting by Chiu Tak Hak hangs on the wall of Ama Bistrot in Point Grey.

It’s a scene that many experience daily: the anxious whirr of the espresso machines, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the chatter of people conversing over a latte.

Vancouver is known as the coffee capital of Canada. It is no surprise then that almost every block is inundated with coffee shops or cafes. Walking through the streets there’s a choice between larger chains, such as Blenz Coffee or Starbucks, and more local cafés, such as Ama Bistrot or Kits Coffee Company. With such a booming coffee culture, I decided to explore where art fit into this scene.

Walking into more popular coffee shops, it’s difficult to believe that customers pay any attention to the artwork. Whether engaged in conversation, buried in a book or grabbing a quick coffee to go, rarely do heads turn towards the walls of the café.

So why is it there?

A painting by Hilary Morris, a Granville Island painter, hangs on the back wall of Kits Coffee Company.

In Ama Bistrot, a small Point Grey café, owner Heathir Rhyasen adorns the walls with canvases of pleasant Parisian streetscapes. She says that it reflects the style of the café and accents the relaxing mood.

The pieces in Ama Bistrot are prints of works by artists such as Chiu Tak Hak and Victor Shvaiko. However, Rhyasen says that customers have little interest in the artists, but rather the work provides a conversation starter, where memories of Paris or other travelling adventures are shared.

On Granville Island, AGRO Café creates an active artist space, showcasing work from local artists.  Customers engage with the pieces, asking knowledgeable baristas about the artists.

In between these two extremes exists Kits Coffee Company on 4th Avenue. It displays a large painting by Granville Island painter, Hilary Morris on its back wall. Colourful and vibrant, Morris’ work depicts a busy café scene filled with lively characters.

A detail of Morris' painting.

Generally, I found that when customers showed little interest in the artwork, it was because the artwork was uninteresting, merely existing like a type of wallpaper. It’s hard to say whether a customer’s interest in art encourages a coffee shop to exhibit more compelling work or if it’s the other way around.

Ultimately, it depends on the mood of the coffee shop-goer to determine where he or she wants to go; whether to enjoy a cup of coffee in a pleasant space or to actively interact with engaging art while sipping a latte.

Luckily, in its abundance of coffee shops, Vancouver satisfies both moods.