Hartford Shops Doubling As Art Galleries

When a Hartford merchant puts artworks by local artists on his walls, it's a win-win-win-win situation.

The artist's work gets seen. The merchant supports the region's art community. The merchant rescues his shop from generic decor. And the merchant gets foot traffic he might not otherwise have gotten, and gives his regular customers an experience they might not have expected.

Gerry Grate, co-owner of The Tobacco Shop at 89 Pratt St. in Hartford, understands this.

"This could look like a typical tobacco shop, with pictures of Winston Churchill smoking and mirrors on the walls. I want to create a new conversation, to change everything up," Grate said. "Usually people come in here, have a cigar, and then go back to work or go home. I want them to leave with a thought process."

A little more than a year ago, Grate glommed onto the idea of showing local artists' work. His customers liked it. The Tobacco Shop's fifth exhibit is on the walls now, of work by Joe Gorneault of Cromwell. An opening reception is Friday, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. The show will be up until Monday, March 3.

Gorneault is exhibiting 16 pieces in the 1,700 square foot space, which includes a sales-and-sitting room in the front and a darker, cozier smoking lounge in the back. His most recent work is inspired by the shop itself. The latest in Gorneault's series of painted-and-collaged mannequins is called "Smokin Divas" and features cut-out photos of famous women smoking cigars.

In the show called "Exhilirate," Gorneault is showing a second mannequin, as well as several latex painting-collages that combine abstract backgrounds and realistic foregrounds. One recurring theme is iconic celebrities, including Gorneault's "Club 27," of people who died at that age: Amy Winehouse, Jean Michel Basquiat, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain.

Gorneault said he likes showing in the shop because his work gets seen by people who might not regularly or ever go to art galleries. "I love being here and watching people discover art," he said.

Grate acknowledged that some artists might not want to show work in a smoke shop because, if for no other reason, the works take on a smoky aroma. He feels that there are plenty of artists in town who will show there anyway and said he hears appreciative comments from customers.

"People who have never been to a museum may say, after seeing the art here, 'I will go to a museum'," he said. "I tell them, 'The Wadsworth Atheneum is just down the street."

John Murphy of Hartford exhibited his works in The Tobacco Shop for four months just before Gorneault's show went up, and he was pleased with the reception. "I sold two paintings with one sale pending," Murphy said.

At the opening reception of Murphy's show, his partner, Linn Bae, who is also a painter, met people from Stackpole Moore Tryon, the 242 Trumbull St. clothier whose Pratt Street entrance is across the street from the smoke shop. Based on that meeting, Stackpole opened an exhibit of Bae's work in December. Her oils are scattered around the store and in an alcove in the shop that used to stock ties. Bae said she has sold three works since the show opened.

Mary Dunn, manager at Stackpole Moore Tryon, said customer response has been positive. "It changes the traffic. People walk in the door, say hello and immediately walk in there," to the room where the art is exhibited, she said.

Dunn added that the staff likes working with the art. "We try to coordinate the colors [of the clothing on the racks] with the colors in her art," Dunn said. "It's good for the artists, and it's fun for us."

Sandy Welch of West Hartford is a pro at getting her work into untraditional spaces. She was the artist at Stackpole just before Bae, and she has had her work seen in other Hartford-area businesses dedicated to showing local artists' work, including Harry's Pizza in West Hartford, Bin 228 restaurant in Hartford, Starbucks at Corbin's Corner and Per Se Aveda salon in Blue Back Square. Other shops that have exhibited local artists' work include West Side Wines and Spirits in West Hartford and Japanalia Eiko clothiers in Hartford.

Welch said wherever she exhibits, she winds up selling work.

"The exposure is great," Welch said. "I like nontraditional spaces because in a gallery or a show, the first night is great, everybody comes and has a glass of wine, but in the days after that it dies off. Stores have a continuous flow of people."