The expectations of cultural tourists have increased incrementally over the last few decades. Among all the potential amenities and treats available to visitors of every site from the juggernaut Tate to the tiny Kirkstall Abbey House Museum, the one we have come to expect most seems to be the on-site café. As their prevalence and popularity rises, it seems that these eateries may be outgrowing the institutions which spawn them, problematising their existence and relationship to the display of art and cultural heritage.
Spending a few days with my boyfriend, we decided to visit a gallery. In the interest of tactfulness (and because it’s only an illustration anyway) I’ll keep it anonymous. Either way, it’s a small one and one we’ve been meaning to go to for a while, having been distracted by all the other cultural repositories clamouring for our attention. Whatever: today was the day. Some anthropomorphic neons in the window assured us that we’d arrived, and we headed in for some refined diversion. Dodging panini-bearing patrons, we made our way through the café to the gallery. (By this point it had become apparent that we were only going to find one display room, and would probably only spend about half an hour within before returning to the summer sunshine. But that’s fine, we reason. When its free entry, I’m perfectly happy to subscribe to the doctrine of quality not quantity.)
Heading into the second room, and finding ourselves in the gallery proper, we discovered just an extension of what had come before. Though just a few tables, the presence of coffee slurping patrons made the whole experience highly uncomfortable. As we’d just come to look at the artworks, we were completely out of place: our behaviour and our aims were at direct odds with the rest of those present. While they chatted and chewed, we attempted to whisper and contemplate. After about thirty seconds of trying to ooze behind occupied chairs to get a closer look at the walls, we gave up and scuttled away, seeking refuge in the adjoining arty bookshop.
What does it mean when a site which proclaims itself as a gallery is also entirely a coffee shop? While in theory there’s nothing wrong in combining your cultural delectation with a danish, in practice such a shift in focus can result in a visitor experience that is both strained and strange. Essentially all that had occurred was a disparity between expectations, resulting in clash between modes of behaviour. We’d done the equivalent of bringing vodka to a dinner party. No one said or did anything about it, but it was clear that we’d turned up to do something that no one else in the room was planning on. After a few attempts to insist on our way of doing things, we were faced with a choice: succumb and grab a table, or slither away feeling embarrassed and transgressive. We did the latter. Our desire to attend the gallery as an art space opposed the desires of those who wanted it to be a café. We left certain that it was a café, and unlikely to attend again.
So what if two visitors leave, when every chair is full? Well, the more troubling result of the over-dominant café was the relegation of the artworks to the background. You’ll notice I have not mentioned them at all. That’s because I don’t really remember them, and I don’t remember them because they were irrelevant to the space and my experience of it. They became trendy decorations – unchallenging and undemanding embellishments on the obligatory cosmopolitan experience of bitter drink consumption. A more generous critic might insist on the merits of melding art with the everyday. Or might praise the space’s simple insistence that even those rushing out to grab a lunch can see contemporary creativity while they convey their milk/sugar preferences. Many gallerists take the stance that these facilities draw people to the space: they’d be lunching anyway – if they do it here they might experience art as well. And if they don’t, well, they might next time. Build and they will come – eventually they might even come for the reason you built it in the first place.
There’s part of me that agrees with this sentiment. It strikes a balance between the need for a café to generate revenue and extend visit duration while still placing the power with cultural institution rather than barrista. But this only considers the experience of the space from the perspective of the café goer. For the visitor who comes to see art, finding yourself in a place filled with what becomes vaguely interesting wallpaper is hugely underwhelming. It’s nice to be able to grab a cup of something when you need a break from deciphering a Duchamp or disregarding a Degas, but when the latter becomes embellishment, on a level with a sprinkle of cocoa on your macchiato, where does that leave art?
For the most part, it seems to me that the territory of the refreshment area has extended just a little too far, spurred by visitor expectations. While the historic house tearoom I suppose is a staple, often the request for directions to a non-existent lunch-vendor can seem a little more disconcerting (I recently worked in a distillery housed in an abandoned factory, and would frequently be ask for a cheese sandwich and a coffee, despite the lack of even the hint of an eatery). The growing attention awarded these amenities (wifi, children’s activities, apps and interactive QR codes – gratis on arrival) which have snuck in to become the norm is firmly the responsibility of museums and galleries themselves. They are added to make even the blandest display interactive, even the smallest exhibition a day out – to draw visitors and to keep them in for longing than the few seconds a cursory disinterested sneer will allow.
I’m beginning to worry though that, in their desire to have their cake and eat it too, they’ve turned into bakeries.