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Feature Fri Oct 16 2009
Who said the finer things in life should be off limits to the rest of us?
That's the premise driving a new salon series kicking off this Sunday at The Bluebird in Bucktown. Over the next four Sunday evenings (through November 15), two artists--Mary Livoni and John Coyle Steinbrunner--and 25 to 30 guests will put themselves in the capable culinary hands and comfortable setting of The Bluebird for a delicious family-style dinner, wine and beer pairings, and art-centered conversation that cuts through the crap.
"When people walk into a gallery, they have this idea that they should be acting a certain way, or have some knowledge they may or may not have to appreciate the art. Yet no one really knows what that idea or knowledge is supposed to be," said Steinbrunner.
At the same time, with the exception of Friday night openings, the experience of viewing art in a gallery can be, well, a little lonely. "There's something sometimes that's sort of sterile about the experience of standing [to view art at a gallery,]" said Livoni.
So the pair - whose work "approaches the same subject in a very different way," according to Steinbrunner - decided to show their art together in an environment that's simultaneously more engaging and less loaded than a traditional gallery. That's where Tom MacDonald came into the picture.
"It seems to me that people feel really comfortable in both of his spaces," said Livoni, of The Bluebird and MacDonald's other restaurant, Webster's Wine Bar in Lakeview.
That's music to MacDonald's ears.
"That same intimidation factor [common to the gallery scene] is so prevalent in the world of wine and sometimes even food," said MacDonald. "That's something I've always been conscious about: stopping the pretension that can prevent people from enjoying wine."
He's also been a big supporter of local artists, a role sparked early on by his older brother, a painter, and by Webster's storied past: The wine bar was once home to Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, a gallery that relocated to Franklin Street during River North's renaissance and ultimately closed its doors in April of this year.
"At both Webster's and Bluebird, I've always had a strong desire to show the works of talented local artists," said MacDonald. He also readily admits that it's good business for restaurants and artists to work together. After all, when a restaurant opens, it has to have something on the walls. "Connecting with a local artist allows you to hang beautiful art for free, and change up the space on a regular basis," said MacDonald, and that's something he's been doing seasonally at Webster's since he opened the place in 1994.
It's good for the artist, too, says Livoni, who had her first showing at Webster's in 1997 and has displayed her works there several times. Galleries typically charge high commissions, but restaurants do not. Plus, showing at a restaurant can help an artist gain unlikely new fans.
"I had so much success and got so much wonderful feedback [showing at Webster's]," said Livoni, who became friends with both MacDonald and Steinbrunner through the wine bar. "People may not buy something right away, but they'll remember you. Walking through an empty gallery just isn't the same. In the ever-shrinking gallery world, this is a different option."
Each evening of the salon series at The Bluebird will ease guests in with aperitifs, followed by a hearty, family-style dinner. If this Sunday's menu is any indication, guests should come hungry. MacDonald plans to begin the meal with a mixed greens salad and three types of flatbreads: tomato, basil, arugula with fresh mozzarella and pine nuts; manchego, serrano ham and egg; and mushrooms, brie, spinach and bacon. The feast will continue with goat's milk cheddar macaroni and cheese; sauteed green beans with garlic and shallots; hand-cut frites; grilled, brined and smoked pork chop with cider and white wine-braised pears; and pan-seared whitefish with tomato and fennel broth. If there's still room for dessert, folks will be treated to assorted baklava, chocolate-covered figs, chocolate-covered dates stuffed with Marcona almonds, and dried fruits and nuts.
As the meal winds up, Steinbrunner and Livoni will give everyone a primer on their work, to help break down the artificial barrier between the viewers and the artists.
Then, the plan is to "let the paintings do what paintings are supposed to do, which is to be objects of contemplation," and in this convivial setting, hopefully start a group conversation, said Steinbrunner.
The trio bets that the family-style meal and libations, served at a long table in The Bluebird's private dining area, will contribute to a comfortable and open atmosphere for viewing art - a stark contrast with the white-walled, echoing and, um, hungry experience many people have in galleries.
They also hope the guests will walk away with a new appreciation for the finer things in life.
"[At Webster's and The Bluebird], we've exposed a lot of people who aren't regulars on the gallery-hopping circuit and who otherwise might never have seen many of the artists we've shown," said MacDonald. "This salon series is the next step and something I've wanted to do for a long time."
"The Bluebird Salon Series: 'Picture This Like This' Paintings by Mary Livoni and John Coyle Steinbrunner" kicks off this Sunday at 7 p.m. Guests may attend one or all four events. Cost per event is $30, which covers family-style dinner, and wine and beer pairings. The series will continue on October 25, November 8 and 15. To make a reservation, contact The Bluebird at (773) 486-2473.