Alternative Venues | Visual Arts

The Artful Cup

photos by Zoe Rodriguez

Every successful business must continuously scan the environment, reassess its performance and goals, and make adjustments as needed. Art galleries, like UTah Artists Hands, are no exception. Owner Pam O’Mara may have found the perfect business reincarnation with the transformation of her gallery space into half-gallery, half-coffee shop and restaurant.

In the eight years Pam O’Mara has owned and operated Utah Artists Hands, a gallery featuring the work of Utah artists, it has been a rollercoaster ride. When the economy took a major dive starting in 2007, other business owners might have scrambled for safety to a more secure business. Not O’Mara. Through neighboring construction, which affected customer parking, as well as tighter budgets, which inhibited art purchases, O’Mara has hung on for dear life.

If the definition of insanity is doing things the same old way and expecting different results, O’Mara will have none of it. In May, 2009, she began to hatch a concept for the business’ transformation. It depended on cooperation from both the building owner and the owner of the adjacent Caffé Molise. “The most profound thing about this project,” says O’Mara, “is the cooperation between two small businesses. We’ve done a very creative thing.” Construction, on what appears to be a win-win-win for all involved, began in October. The transformed space includes The Artful Cup, – which may be the city’s most inviting and, literally “art-full” coffee shop – and officially opened with the March 19th Gallery Stroll.

Think of two business spaces turned into three spaces, with the two businesses sharing the middle. Utah Artist Hands gave up some floor space but gained wall space in the transformation. A windowed wall with attractive double doors goes north-south down the middle of the former space, dividing the gallery from the coffee shop. It has its own door to the street, but can also be accessed through the new door to The Artful Cup. 

In the new coffee shop space, a sales counter and barista station welcomes visitors as they enter from the street. Shelves display ceramic cups crafted locally. The west wall provides display space for two-dimensional art. Bistro tables and chairs, as well as easy chairs, invite coffee and tea sippers to linger. And a library shelf of art books is available for customers to browse.

At the back of the coffee shop, formerly O’Mara’s office, are newly constructed restrooms and a passageway to Caffé Molise, next door to the west. Original art for sale by the gallery hangs on the corridor wall space as well as in the restaurant.

According to O’Mara, Caffé Molise owner Fred Moesinger has enthusiastically welcomed art from Utah Artists Hands on his restaurant walls since he purchased the business seven years ago. With the new arrangement, he gains nice restrooms for his customers as well as overflow space in The Artful Cup, which he can use for restaurant service after 5:30 pm every day.

It’s easy to imagine that restaurant patrons, seeing the art, may wander next door to the gallery. And hungry gallery customers can more easily find their way into the restaurant, enjoying the continuous display of art along the way.

Meanwhile, the new “child,” The Artful Cup, is a draw for both businesses. Opening at 8:30 am, Monday – Saturday, the shop is just steps away from major hotels and the Salt Place Convention Center. Artful Cup barista Susan Smith, herself an artist and jewelry maker with works in the gallery, opens the doors to the gallery, allowing the early morning crowd to browse and buy art.

“A lady from Seattle came in for coffee recently and left with a sculpture,” says Smith, illustrating the type of tourism sale that has long sustained the gallery.

But The Artful Cup is not just for tourists and convention goers. As a unique service to locals, the shop will sell the customer a hand-crafted mug, put his/her name on it, and have it clean and ready for their favorite brew every day.

So how does all this change affect the dozens of artists who are represented by the gallery? “The Artful Cup increases the exposure for our artists,” says O’Mara. “We want people to come in and feel relaxed” as they sip coffee and look at art. “It makes fine art more approachable.” Since The Artful Cup began serving customers during the Outdoor Retailers Convention in January, “we’ve had a wonderful response. Customers have said, ‘It feels so good in here,’” says O’Mara.

O’Mara says the gallery itself will now focus more on fine art and less on small gifts, while the coffee shop shelves will feature more of the small gift items – all handcrafted – that customers have come to love. O’Mara also hopes to give some of her artists “easel space” in the coffee shop, where they can set up paints and customers can watch them create. The easel might also provide the opportunity for public collaboration. “Customers could pick up pen or brush and add to a work that has been started.”

What a way to start the day – coffee to wake up the left brain and art to wake up the right! Will this be the change that will successfully carry Utah Artists Hands through whatever remains of the art market doldrums to better times? Time will tell, and then it will be time to reassess and change again.

Caffe Molise, the Artful Cup and UTah Artist Hands are all located on 100 South, between Main St. And West Temple. 

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