Danville Express

Newsfront - June 22, 2007

Culture clash at coffee house

Patrons petitioning after Starbucks relegates its local paintings to smaller wall

by Natalie O'Neill

A young blond Danville woman confronts the viewer with a confident gaze in a mixed media portrait. Mouth slightly open, she slumps casually in her chair with a short cigarette resting in her right hand.

This painting, part of a series that once hung on the entry wall of the Danville Starbucks on Railroad Avenue, was removed last week after a middle-aged woman complained the painting encourages the high school students who frequent the shop to smoke.

"I'm not promoting smoking, I'm promoting beauty," said painter Christopher Ellingson, who also baristas at the Starbucks.

A district representative first responded to the woman's objection, noting there was no problem with the painting's subject matter, Ellingson said. But once it got to the regional level, he was told his exhibit space will be limited to a smaller adjacent wall - where the series won't fit, he said. In place of the paintings, generic coffee house prints now hang.

More than 100 of the shop's regulars - consultants, students, firefighters, engineers, CEOs - have signed a petition stating they want the art to go back up. The art is what gives the store a personal, local feel and it's not the same without it, they say.

Store manager Jessica Peterson confirmed there were complaints about the painting's content but said she could not answer press queries. According to Starbucks media representative Michelle Chidoni, however, the art was removed because the proper hanging devices for the portraits were not used.

"It's the way it was hung. When Starbucks puts up art, it needs to be evenly hung and professional looking," Chidoni said.

But Ellingson doesn't buy it. The timing - just a couple weeks after the complaint was vocalized - makes him think Starbucks is skirting around the issue. Anyone who has been to the store knows the paintings were hung evenly and that the hangers used are arbitrary, he said.

"If it was just about the hooks, why would they have to be taken down immediately?" he said. "They made it obvious they just want this squelched."

Phil Hellsten, a Starbucks regular who has been circulating the petition, said the backlash has been strong. People aren't just noticing the paintings are gone, they are genuinely upset, he said.

"All day long people come in and go, 'Where's the art?'" said Hellsten, who is also an artist. "I thought it was kind of sad."

Located about 50 yards from the high school, this shop is frequented by groups of students throughout the school day. Upperclassmen take their lunch breaks off campus here, socialize, eat and smoke right outside. The store's proximity to the high school likely played a part in the woman's objections, students and customers said.

The woman who complained about the art could not be reached to explain her concerns. Starbucks management said they could not give out her name, phone number, or leave Danville Weekly contact information at the shop for her.

Art in Starbucks locations are chosen by store managers and employees at each individual store to add local character to Starbucks locations, Erika Mapes, Marketing Specialist for Starbucks, wrote in an e-mail.

"When a store receives a complaint about a particular piece of art, the store manager will review the complaint with the partners (employees) on a case by case basis," Mapes wrote.

She stated that this particular art will be put back up once the proper hangers are installed. But Ellingson says the series won't fit in the space he's been allotted - and that's the problem.

Kacie Evans, a 23-year-old Monte Vista graduate, who is the subject of the painting in question, said the cigarette wouldn't be an issue if it wasn't near the school.

"It's laughable, honestly. You see what you want to see," she said.

Patron Chuck Traylor agreed he finds it hard to understand how the art could be offensive.

"I can tell you this is not controversial art, it's not pushing the boundaries," said Traylor. "It's not bringing attention to the cigarette, it draws attention to her face."

Starbucks, which is named after a character from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," started as a small coffee house in Seattle's Pike's Place in 1971 and has now expanded into an international chain.

Today Starbucks higher-ups say they pride themselves on being sensitive to the communities in which they are located.

"Starbucks (has) created different store environments that are culturally attuned to meet our customer's needs," their Web site states.

In this case, Ellingson said, you have a local artist putting up paintings of local people - ones that have received great feedback from customers. Here, Starbucks' response shows a disconnect between the community and the people making decisions, he said. He added that he donates 5 percent of his painting sales to Starbucks charities in the Danville area.

"This is where this company has lost some of its soul," Ellingson said.

As a corporation, Starbucks is among the few in the food and restaurant industry that offer employees health care. The company also touts that it is good economically for the communities where it operates.

In the past year, Danville has lost art venues at the Village Theatre, and galleries on Hartz Avenue and Blackhawk Plaza have closed, much to the art community's disappointment.

Employees at other Danville and Alamo Starbucks locations said they hang local artists' pieces, as long as they are "in good taste."

"Danville is desperately in need of art space. This one emerged out of nothing and now it's being taken away," Ellingson said.

Contact Natalie O'Neill at noneill@danvilleweekly.com

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