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Starbucks serves up Avant-Grande art in style

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Every Sunday Morning a group of art enthusiasts meet at a Starbucks in Chicago’s River North district. Maps are distributed, drinks are bought, and at around 11a.m. the group sets off with a member of the Chicago Art Dealers’ Association on a guided tour of neighborhood galleries. Each week, four galleries are selected, with general information provided by a representative at each stop. The week that I took the tour, galleries specializing in a wide range of media and genres were presented, from Russian contemporary art at the Maya Polsky Gallery, to an exhibition of glasswork at the Marx-Saunders Gallery.

Every weekend, openings are held at many of the city’s countless galleries. Given the sheer number of options, it is easy to be overwhelmed. This guided tour was a great way to tackle the Chicago art scene, to see what is out there, and to cover a decent amount of ground before many people have fully recovered from the night before.

Why Starbucks Saturdays, however? As a politically aware person, I found myself concerned about the potential implications of sponsorship from a corporation that many believe epitomizes the faults of globalization.

Yet I could not ignore the obvious fact that Starbucks was footing the bill—for something I care about. And­—as I found out—guided tours are far from the only arts event the Starbucks Corporation sponsors. Late Nights at the Dallas Museum of Art include musical performances, art-making demonstrations, films, artist talks, and Starbucks coffee. At the Amarillo Museum of Art, Third Thursdays involve live music, gallery tours, films, and complimentary Starbucks coffee. At the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, attendees of the Starbucks Coffee Lecture Series receive free admission and—you guessed it -Starbucks coffee. In both San Francisco and Chicago, Starbucks has organized its own Avant-Grande exhibitions. These exhibitions feature work by aspiring artists, all of whom are Starbucks baristas. Proceeds from the Avant-Grande shows are then given to the institution in which the exhibition is held.

While corporate sponsorship in the arts is inevitable, the attachment of a big brand name to a specific cultural event can be a slippery slope. If all of the events previously mentioned involve serving, sampling, and distributing Starbucks products, where is the line that separates a lecture with a coffee tasting from a coffee tasting with a lecture?

The corporation itself is of little assistance in making any sort of judgment about arts sponsorship; there was virtually no commentary on the phenomenon to be found in the press releases and declarations of social responsibility on the corporation’s website.

Perhaps it is Starbucks’ somewhat hasty rise to enormous success that has inspired them to give back to some of the communities in which their stores can be found. The first store opened in 1971, the endeavor of a small group consisting of a history teacher, an English teacher, and a writer. The original Starbucks exclusively sold coffee beans, and met with only marginal success until the late eighties, when it began to sell the to-go coffee and espresso drinks it is currently best known for. Additional locations began to open overseas in the nineties, raising legitimate concerns about its potential global impact. Currently, there are more than 10,800 Starbucks locations worldwide.

The company is known—perhaps most so amongst graduating liberal arts majors such as myself— for the full benefits and stock-option grants it provides to any employee who works twenty or more hours per week. Because of this unusual policy, it has consistently been voted one of the best companies to work for in the United States. Additionally, Starbucks has donated millions of dollars to various non-profits and social organizations, such as the NAACP.

However, it isn’t all free coffee and full benefits: Starbucks has been heavily criticized by activists who object to the corporation’s fair-trade policies, labor relations, and environmental impact. On the other end of the political spectrum, conservative Christian groups took offense to an Amistead Maupin quote on the company’s paper cups, which promoted tolerance of homosexuality.

Additionally, and perhaps most relevantly, Starbucks’ Hear Music program, which produces CDs to be sold at Starbucks locations, recently demonstrated the ways in which corporate sponsorship of art can encroach on artistic expression itself. In a move that could be seen to as censorship, Starbucks declined to fund a project by Bruce Springsteen because of one potentially objectionable lyric. As Billboard magazine’s senior news editor, Bill Werde, stated in a recent interview with The Guardian, “When Bruce Springsteen puts out a record that has some explicit lyrics and Starbucks doesn’t want to carry it, you may be looking into the future of retail. That should be a concern for anyone who values art purely for the sake of good art.”

The rejection of Springsteen’s project came only a few years after Starbucks had sued San Francisco artist Kieron Dwyer for creating comic books, t-shirts, and stickers that satirized the Starbucks logo, reading “Consumer Whore” where one would expect to see “Starbucks.” The case was eventually settled when the corporation and artist agreed that the altered logo would be displayed exclusively on Dwyer’s personal website, which could contain no links to other websites, effectively preventing anyone from seeing it.

Such is the tails side of the coin that is Starbucks sponsorship of the arts. Despite close encounters with censorship and political concerns, the obvious and complicating fact that Starbucks is giving money to arts organizations remains. Furthermore, the recipients of such support consistently describe Starbucks as a favorable source of support. In a survey of institutions that hosted Starbucks-sponsored events, each interviewee responded that they were pleased with the relationship they had with Starbucks. In the local case of Starbucks Saturdays, the corporation is integral to the event’s success: Starbucks helped to fund the initial announcement cards for the event, provided complimentary drink cards for people who take the tour, and allowed the Chicago Art Dealers’ Association to keep a sign in their River North store informing Starbuck’s customers about the event.

Hate it or love it, Starbucks is here to stay – there’s a good chance you’re standing within 500 feet of one as you read this. As much as you may try to avoid them, steering clear is complicated by the fact that, well, you’ve got a shared interest – art. Chicago Art Dealers’ Association Executive Director Natalie van Straaten quite aptly summarized the reason why Starbucks sponsorship has worked out as well as it has thus far. “They let us ‘do our thing,’ which is an ideal role for corporate sponsorship of the arts,” she commented. “It is always wonderful when corporations appreciate the organizations that they sponsor, but let them do what they do best.” Van Straaten cited a similar situation, “It’s great that United [Airlines] has named the United Center with their dollars…just as long as they don’t try to get out there on the basketball court.” Despite several close calls, Starbucks has thus far served as a means of considerable financial support for localized arts events while staying out of the court. Meanwhile, their philanthropy is serving as a clear example of both the benefitsand dangers of corporate sponsorship in the arts.

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