Behind the scenes: How Tunnel City chooses its art

Patrons of Tunnel City Coffee admire paintings of Spring Street by local artist Bob Lafond, whose exhibit will be on view until March. Arjun Kakkar/Photo Editor.

 

Tunnel City is the quintessential coffee shop. Students and Williamstown residents love the fancy drinks, delicious pastries, casual ambiance and cozy seating areas – but not everyone realizes the careful consideration that goes into the rotating art exhibits gracing the walls.

While Tunnel City has always featured shows by local artists, for the last few years café owners Paul Lovegreen and Bar Gil have had the help of friend Tracy Baker-White ’80 in curating the works that appear at Tunnel City. Baker-White, elementary school outreach coordinator at the College’s Center for Learning in Action, describes herself as a “volunteer consultant” for Tunnel City’s art. Drawing on her previous professional experience in arts administration and museum education, Baker-White works to choose the artists who are featured, help them design their shows and assist in installing the works at the shop. An artist herself, she initially became friends with Lovegreen when she started showing her own art at Tunnel City.

Baker-White prides herself on  selecting talented local artists  from places such as North Adams, Pittsfield, Bennington and Williamstown itself. There’s never a dearth of talented artists to feature at the coffee shop, since “we’re fortunate to have a very culture-rich region,” Baker-White said.

Generally, artists in the area approach Tunnel first, enthusiastic about showing their art in such an ambient location. Baker-White then follows up with them and creates the schedule of artists. Shows are usually planned a year and a half in advance in order to give the artists ample time to create pieces for a cohesive show.

“It takes a substantial amount of time and concentration as an artist to put together a body of work that’s going to work in a particular show,” Baker-White said. “Working ahead allows artists to really be thoughtful about what they’re going to show, when and how.”

Local artist Bob Lafond took the initiative to approach Tunnel City’s owners, hoping to have his art featured there. He frequents the coffee shop himself and had noticed the art on the walls, so he met up with Lovegreen to discuss a possible show. Lafond has had solo exhibits at Tunnel City three times in the past five years, and on Jan. 8 this year, the coffee shop unveiled his fourth show there.

This latest exhibit of 42 recent paintings by Lafond carries similar themes to his previous shows, but with a greated focus on Williamstown, he said. A whole room focuses exclusively on Williamstown’s Hopper Trail, which Lafond describes as “a great hike” in addition to a favorite subject for painting.

Exhibits selected for the coffee shop must fit the unique space and particular needs of Tunnel City, as well as maintain a balance of types and styles, Baker-White said.

“We have to be careful that the artwork is appropriate for the type of space and that it’s durable enough,” Baker-White said. Ceramics could not be effectively displayed in the café, and “we’ve had mostly oil painters because oils are more durable than watercolors,” she said. In addition to oil paintings, though, past watercolor and photography exhibits have worked well and Baker-White has already scheduled future shows featuring more artists using those media.

“I try to mix it up, [such as] whether it’s representational or there’s some abstract,” Baker-White said. “We haven’t done a whole lot with abstract work mostly because I haven’t had it presented to me. But I like to do a balance.”

Tunnel City’s art show changes every three months or so. Rotating fresh new art into the shop is exciting, but installing new exhibits is work-intensive, so the three-month schedule works best for Tunnel City, Baker-White said.

The shop usually features just one artist at a time, or occasionally two artists with complementary work. It’s important to keep a tight focus on one or two artists so that they can fully convey the themes of their work, Baker-White said. She also gives the artists freedom to design the space themselves so the exhibits truly reflect the artists, Baker-White said.

“It’s easier to get a sense of an artist’s vision if you have a fair amount of work to look at,” she said.

Baker-White sometimes has people contact her up to a year after a show, interested in viewing the rest of her work and buying some of her art. Lafond also gets positive feedback from his Tunnel City exhibits and has found that the shows are a great way to publicize and sell art, he said.

Ultimately, the art exhibitions at Spring Street’s only coffee shop are a wonderful reflection of and contribution to the community at large, Baker-White said.

“Paul [Lovegreen] could hang generic decorator prints and it would be a lot less trouble,” Baker-White said. “But having the fine artwork of local artists supports the cultural community that we live in, and gives our town something a little more original and intellectually stimulating to chew on. Paul once said that Tunnel City feels like the living room of the community, and it’s great to be surrounded by the creative output of community members.”

Tunnel City Coffee’s owners welcome art submissions from Williams community members.