Free Drinks For Art: Soho House Makes a Trade

There is a long and honorable tradition of eateries and watering holes where artists can settle their checks with their work. And there is about to be another. Francesca Gavin, art curator for the London-based Soho House brand of private clubs, is heading here to amass a collection for the New York branch, bar tabs as barter. “I’m coming over during Armory Week” (about March 1), Ms. Gavin said—and she will be buying in bulk. Soho House Miami’s collection, for example, amassed over a number of weeks, is 150 pieces strong.

Free drinks for art is fine news for artists. But how will the program work?

As an example, Ms. Gavin said she approached KAWS, a.k.a. Brian Donnelly, the Brooklyn-based  artist, late last year in Miami. (He’s perhaps best known for his memorable street piece embellishing a bus kiosk photograph of Christy Turlington with a space alien.) “Lovely guy,” she told me later.

She told him she wanted to acquire a drawing for the collection going up in the lobby and corridors of the just-opened Soho Beach House in Miami. The artist said he was delighted. “They make you a global member and they give you credit,” said KAWS. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you the amount, but they are generous.” Did KAWS visit the Beach House? “Oh, yes,” he said.

Standouts in the artist-bar category, that is to say bars that drank their way into art history because of their habitués, would include the Paris Bar, which flourished in Berlin in the early 1990s, and, of course, New York’s Max’s Kansas City. The work of Max’s regulars, who included Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, John Chamberlain and—in the back room—Andy Warhol, filled galleries. Max’s was saluted in strong shows at the Loretta Howard and Steven Kasher galleries here last fall. But Mickey Ruskin opened Max’s in 1964, and it was already running out of puff when he closed it in 1973. Artist bars and bar-restaurants were never long-lived.

The Paris Bar and Max’s were anarchic haunts—the plate-glass window of Max’s was regularly shattered by brawling artists—and they flourished in that curiously recent period when the avant-garde art world was tiny and huddled together, as if for human warmth. But we live in a different cultural climate. Today’s giant art world requires no such frontier camaraderie. The Soho House group is that very modern thing, a brand. Their art-for-bar-tabs project is not the product of an urge to create a psychic shelter but a smart curatorial project and a shrewd investment strategy.

The program was initiated just over a year ago when the Soho House London, the parent of the group, opened a space on Dean Street (in addition to its Greek Street headquarters) on premises once occupied by the Gargoyle, a club that was the stuff of boho legend. The members-only club launched in England 16 years ago, with Damien Hirst as an early member (and decorator of the walls), but has recently become something of a hotel chain. West Hollywood opened last spring, then Berlin, then Miami. Each major outpost has gotten its own art collection. “It’s an ever-increasing collection that’s getting put into the houses internationally,” said Ms. Gavin. This summer, Soho House New York’s collection will be unveiled.

“In Berlin, it’s all Berlin-based artists. In New York, we’re going to have all New York artists. Like the rest of the collection, it will be largely paintings and works on paper.” No video, and not much photography, she said. “Most of the work is drawings, paintings and prints.” How many pieces will they be looking to pick up in New York? “I imagine around 80, like in Dean Street and Berlin.” But, noting the largesse in Miami, she added, “I wouldn’t want to be held to it.”

Artwork in the Beach House includes pieces by Jack Pierson, Hernan Bas, Shepard Fairey and John Baldessari, whose piece was added just as his retrospective opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; all of the pieces were bought in exchange for bar (and food) tabs. The Berlin club has work by, among others, Douglas Gordon, Thomas Demand and Tacita Dean, and the West Hollywood club has picked up pieces by Ed Ruscha, Mark Ryden and Raymond Pettibon. (Of course, these geographic distinctions are a bit fungible, since Mr. Baldessari, for example, is better known as a California artist and Hernan Bas a Miami one.) Ms. Gavin said she has not yet approached anybody in New York, and will not discuss her budget.

Art dealers looking forward to a fat chunk of a bar tab may be in for some grief, though. “Mostly we deal directly with artists,” Ms. Gavin says. And as for the size of the bar tabs involved, well, that will depend on the value assigned to each individual piece, which is often where the dealer does get involved. “Membership is for a couple of years—not for life, sadly,” she says. “Though artists can obviously renew.” (Yearly membership is $1,800 for access to the New York branch alone; it has 4,000 members and claims a waiting list nearly as big.)

Yes. But will they? Clearly Ms. Gavin is putting together an intelligent collection, but the bar in the Soho House makes no effort to replicate the louche electricity of Max’s Kansas City. You can hang art, but you can’t bottle lightning. That was another time, another world.

Free Drinks For Art: Soho House Makes a Trade