Cafe Art: Where homelessness, great art and coffee meet

Outside In’s Manager Jennifer Gilbert took a trip to London to find out more about an innovative project connecting homeless artists with places to exhibit.

On a cold Winter’s afternoon in London, we met with Michael from Cafe Art, very aptly in a cafe that was showcasing some framed artwork by artists involved with the project. What began out of a passion to showcase the work of homeless artists in 2012 has now grown to work with twelve organisations across London as well as partnering with similar projects in New York and Melbourne … with plans to grow further too.

John Sheehy

John Sheehy

Cafe Art connects people affected by homelessness with the wider community through art. They frame the artwork of people attending art sessions run by London homeless sector organisations. They then find independent London cafés to hang and sell it in, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the artists. The point being to stop the art work sitting about in hostels and centres, and to put it out there for local communities and wider audiences to enjoy it, appreciate it and begin to understand it.

Not only do Cafe Art bring together artists from almost all of London’s homelessness organisations to showcase their art, they also encourage and try to create opportunities for them to earn a meaningful income. This may be through selling their art, but also through helping to sell the calendars that they make every year.

Stuart Bleasdale

Stuart Bleasdale

Cafe Art is a social enterprise with charitable objectives with all profits going back in to building the business. Michael began his work in his field though volunteering every Friday in St Mungo’s, which is something that he still does to this day. After a long career working in the pharmaceutical industry he decided that he wanted to give something back to his local community. Thinking he was going in to St Mungo’s to run fitness classes he found himself running the art classes and with no background in the arts, it was a very daunting process and at first a very unfulfilling one. Over time though, he saw something in this art that he wanted to share with others, rather than it being hidden away. He relied on friends and family to help him to frame a selection of art work and approached a local cafe with blank walls to see if they would offer the space for free on a trial basis. To his amazement they said yes and once the work was hung, Michael took the group down there for a cup of coffee so that they could see their work hanging on the walls. The group stayed a while, delighted by this opportunity. A couple then came in to the cafe and enquired about the work on the walls. The cafe owner explained that the artists were all sitting together in the corner and the couple came over to start a conversation. The pride the artists felt about sharing their stories  and their art was something that Michael has never forgotten, and so Cafe Art was born and is still thriving to this day.

The nice thing about people being able to view the art in cafés is that all buyers are given the opportunity to meet the artist over a cup of coffee should they wish to. Cafe Art hope this will produce an instant, lasting and direct gratification for all concerned. Not only does it allow the artist to tell the buyer about themselves and their art, it allows the buyer to tell the artist about why they like their work and have chosen to buy it.

Reza Parto Azam

Reza Parto Azam

Alongside the work hanging in cafés, Cafe Art organises pop up exhibitions, an exhibition in Christie’s Auction House in Central London (which acted as an advertisement for Cafe Art and the artists it supports) and once a year a large corporate firm put on an event where the art is hung and available for sale, as well as the artists having the opportunity to talk about their work. The company that they worked with in 2014 was Allen and Overy. Ikea also supports the project with frames, so that the work can be presented well and at a low cost.

For three years now Cafe Art have been producing calendars that have been for sale in varying places across London. These are all designed, produced and printed in London. The first year saw one piece of art from each organisation within the calendar alongside some information about the chosen artist and the organisation that they attend. For the past two years, disposable cameras have been given out in the July to any artist involved to take part. After all the photographs have been processed the Royal Photographic Society choose their favourite twenty images which are framed and form an exhibition in Spitalfields, London. When they are on display audiences can vote on them and the top twelve make it into the calendar. Not only are the images used, but the artists story is shared with the public and the Royal Photographic Society also chooses their favourite image with that artist winning a prize. Each year the number printed has gone up from 1000 in year one, 3000 in year two and in 2014, 5000 were printed and they have nearly all sold out.

Mateus El Samaria

Mateus El Samaria

The great thing about these calendars is that once all the sales have been counted, the money is split equally between the twelve charities that they work with. However, rather than hand over cash which may not directly go towards the art department, vouchers for art materials are handed over. We think this a great idea to ensure that the money goes to the areas that Cafe Art are there to support.

The final thing we wanted to mention about Cafe Art are the exhibitions they started in 2013 with other countries. In 2013 they found several homeless charities in New York and decided to do an exhibition swap in a cafe called “This is where I live.” Cafe Art saves costs by sending the work over in a tube for it to be framed over there, and likewise they do the same for Cafe Art to frame here. The exhibition then goes up in a cafe with stories about the artists and organisations and the same happens here in London about the New York charities. In 2014 Melbourne was added, with a three way swap of the work and every year from now on they hope to add a new city. This is a great way to make connections and to get the art work out there by these individuals.

Ian Stewart

Ian Stewart

Cafe Art relies very heavily on the generosity of other organisations, cafés and businesses and thanks to these, the project is still going from strength from strength. There are some ambitious plans for the future and we wish them every success.

Cafe Art is run by Michael Wong and Paul Ryan. Click here to find out more about the project on its website.

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