Ritual Coffee Roasters Owner Eileen Hassi Pulls Artist’s Work from Display?

Got this email today from Varese Layzer. Haven’t had a chance to look into everything yet, but this sounds like it sucks. Makes me think I should avoid buying coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters in the future. I’ve emailed Eileen from Ritual Coffee Roasters for a response and will publish it here if I get one.

“Hi, Tom

I’m sorry I didn’t know you until one of my colleagues forwarded to me your name and that you might be interested in my story. I hope you might take a second to read about my case?

A very prominent San Francisco cafe, Ritual Coffee (ritualroasters.com), offered to show my work. I asked them to choose from among my many photographs and they said I could do what I liked as long as it was not portraits. I invited them to view the work I chose. I also asked if I could put up an artist statement. They said yes. I said it would be large and was that okay — they said yes.

I spent approximately $3,000 on the show and hundreds of hours (as you can well imagine). It was professionally framed.

The owner of the cafe tore down the statement a few days after it opened without telling me, two days ago. When I noticed this, I complained bitterly to the curator, who had been my only point person and had done all the approving, etc. He apologized and left a message with the owner. The owner, Eileen Hassi, wrote today to tell me to take the entire show down now. You can see her letter here.

In it, she says the show was too serious for a cafe and that she had goofed by not telling me this sooner. She fired the curator (who told me he was actually a volunteer) and he has renounced all responsibility for the incident. She has offered me “$300 for your time on this one.” She will not phone me or give me her phone number and has further contacted me only to say that I must take it down by Thursday.

You can see the work — pictures of furniture, believe it or not — here, and the inflammatory statement here.

I would be happy to show the work without the statement. Most people who have seen the work without the statement have found it totally harmless (which is why I added the statement, frankly!). While I’m sort of happy that the statement is such a Rite-of-Spring-riot inducer to one woman, I think she’s making a terrible mistake and that the work itself is really very pleasant if you don’t show it with the statement.

I hope this is something that interests you and your readers. I’m not sure what to do.

Thanks for reading,


Update 3-8-2012: Just got this email from Varese:

“Dear Tom,

I am happy to report that a gallery owner has invited me to show the work you wrote about last year when it was removed from Ritual Coffee.

Thank you again for taking the time to read my letter in the first place and giving it space on your very influential site. I can see that people are referred from your article to my site weekly — still.

Making Room will be shown at Krowswork Gallery, 480 23rd St., Oakland, krowswork.com, from March 30th to April 28th, along with two other artists’ work. (I also have another “serious” series in this show.) The opening is the evening of the 30th. You are most welcome — it would be great to meet you.”

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  1. Celine says:

    Was there a contract in place, or any sort of written indication as to how long the photos would be shown?

  2. Varese says:

    Yes. The contract states “This contract states that Ritual Coffee Roasters provide a venue for artists to showcase their works. Displays will hang for at least 6 weeks or longer as determined by the curator and artist. The artist will be entitled to 75% of art sales and the curator will receive a 25% commission on determined sales. Neither Ritual Coffee nor it’s [sic] customers will be held responsible for any stolen or damaged works.”

  3. Clearlight says:

    You should consider a small claims action.

  4. Walter says:

    First of all, I am very sorry this happened to you but can we all learn from this?

    My question here is who did you deal with all the way – the company itself or the curator and who said that they didn’t have to see yr work or select the pieces?

    Could it be that it was the curator who goofed up? In the end it probably doesn’t matter as you are left with the loss/damage but taking them to court could end in more expenses and a long struggle.

    Is there a chance to put up some other work of yours or is that all out of the question?

    Anyhow, difficult to decide or judge from distance but good luck with whatever you decide.

  5. Walter says:

    I also want to say that I do like yr work but would add that it is the artist statement which puts it in perspective, explains the story behind the photos and triggers the necessary reflection process on the viewer’s side.

    Shame that it could not be shown as planned.

  6. Celine says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but if you do decide to go the legal route, I would suggest you not take the $300 being offered. She might be able to argue that is a resolution to the issue.

    Even if the curator did make a mistake, he worked for the company, and as such, the company is likely responsible. See if you can get a free consultation with a small claims lawyer.

  7. Varese says:

    Thank you for noticing my work. Perhaps one day I can sign a meaningful contract with an actual gallery.

  8. Walter says:

    I don’t know, I would try to avoid litigation. To the company it doesn’t matter as they see it defending their customer’s interest but it’s a small world and it is also yr reputation that is at stake.

    I would try to meet up with Eileen and see how this could be sorted out. Perhaps her gallery contacts are a more positive option. It could very well be that she was truly not aware of the pictures, etc. you were showing and she trusted the curator for whatever reasons. Her letter sounds pretty honest.

    Let it sit for a week and then decide. Once the porcelain is broken, the pieces cannot be put together.

    And what is there to gain financially? Would it not be over a potential loss in sales? And would the company not have records of previous sales revenues of other artists?

  9. really? says:


    i’m shocked.

    Someone who has sex with that shakedown artist Chicken John, who lies, and uses the bully boy tactics on behalf of Ritual Roasters is…an asshole?!?

    shocking. It’s clear that the best use for a brick these days is to throw one in the window of Ritural Roaster, and the other at Chickenshit John. A pair of thugs, who deserve to be run out of town back to the east coast hamlet these lying shit came from!

  10. Neo says:

    Honest to god, after reading this post, I expected the inflammatory artist statement to be, well, inflammatory. Instead I found something similar to what I myself will write when I have a chance to display some of the 400+ shots I took of my mother’s apartment after moving her to a dementia facility and liquidating the accumulated artifacts of our lives. I can’t see what could possibly be offensive or disturbing about the work or the statement. To find it so is itself disturbing. The reasoning is so non-sensical that one wonders whether it is really the reason for the abrupt turn around.

    Obviously, it’s her shop and she can do what she wants, but you’d think she’d be more worried about the flies often buzzing around in the pastry cabinet.

    By the way, I really like your work and am confident that you will find a place to display it.

  11. Varese says:

    Thank you for digging the work, Neo. I agree: I can’t believe anything about this is censorship-worthy, offensive or worth firing someone over and breaking a contract for. It is itself disturbing, as you say. I’m glad it meant something to you who’s been through something similar.

  12. sirshannon says:

    I don’t know… reading her letter, it sounds like you could get your photos moved into her boyfriend’s gallery and this would be a win/win for everyone.

    I think the curator blew this for everyone involved.

  13. Yellowknife says:

    Varese, please don’t take any legal advice from non-lawyers!! They don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Even though what Eileen did was VERY douchey and unprofessional, a small claims action would not be successful here. Eileen wasn’t a party to the contract–it was done through an intermediary, and since it was done without Eileen’s consent, the contract will probably not be upheld in court. And even if it were, the issue all boils down to aesthetic preferences, which can’t be legally enforced.

    My advice (as both a lawyer and a San Franciscan who won’t patronize Ritual in the future) is to cut your losses, and use this free publicity to get your beautiful photos shown somewhere they’ll be appreciated!

  14. Fred von Pepperson says:

    From the way Eileen’s letter reads, it sounds like she had some personal trauma, maybe her own mother who died under weird circumstances. Not that this is any excuse for her being unprofessional about this whole thing, it could give clarity as to why the statement set her off.

  15. kurtribak says:

    I was very surprised the owner had any issue with your artist statement. It’s not even a particularly dark statement – it simply states what was going on when you took the pictures. Very good photos, by the way. And not anything I would find inappropriate in a cafe.

    Her actions and objections do make her look like “the bad guy”- but that’s her fault.

  16. James Li says:

    I respectfully disagree with lawyer Yellowknife regarding the contract not being valid. If the person who signed it on behalf of Ritual Coffee Roasters was authorized to do so, then the contract is valid. Ms. Hassi does not have to sign it personally.

    Further, if the person who signed it appeared to you to have had authority (i.e., “apparent authority”) to do so, Ritual might still be bound by the contract. If the person did not have authority but Ms. Hassi or her co-owner knew about the curator signing contracts in the past and did not object to it, the contract might still be valid through the principle of “implied ratification.”

    I am not recommending one way or another that you go to small claims court. However, if you did, you could sue for your lost profits (which might be a bit speculative since it is hard to predict how many pictures you would have sold) or, at the least, the money and labor you spent to prepare for your exhibition (assuming that you weren’t going to spend that money and time anyway to prepare for other exhibitions of the same photographs).

    If you want to pursue this, you may want to contact the California Lawyers for the Arts for a low cost or pro bono consultation.

    (If it matters, I have been a lawyer for 22+ years.)

    Apparent authority: http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=2411

    Ratification: http://itlaw.wikia.com/wiki/Implied_authority

    California Lawyers for the Arts: http://www.calawyersforthearts.org/Lawyer_Referral

  17. Renee says:

    Soooo… I can see the actual contract conflict, you should seek legal advice on that. However, as the owner of the cafe, doesnt she have the right to say what goes up on her walls and what doesnt? Clearly the curtor made a misstep when entering into this relationship with you on behalf of the cafe, but why is the owner being made out to be the ogre on this. I think you should read her email from her viewpoint. It seems to me that Art is so subjective that what works for some doesnt work for others. Isn’t that still ok in the USA?

    I’m sorry for the both of you. This is an impossible situation for all parties involved.

  18. Howard Owens says:

    I sympathize greatly with Varese. This is a horrible situation to be in. It’s more than just the money. It’s unavoidably hurtful to have your work taken down when you had such high expectations for the show.

    That said, Eileen’s letter is quite reasonable. It’s her business. She knows best what environment she wants to create. If she is at fault to any degree, it’s either not handling such a delicate matter herself (instead of outsourcing it) or not fully explaining her expectations to the curator. Clearly, there was a break down in communication and Eileen was faced with a tough choice — allow something to be in place that she felt would damage her business, or risk insulting the artist. The e-mail sounds sincere that she knew she wasn’t making a decision that would be received well, but she felt it was best for her business.

    I’ve dealt with small business owners who are much more rude about how they conduct themselves.

    This is a no-win situation for all involved.

  19. Rob says:

    After reading the article and the artist statement, I already had a negative view of the owner but after reading her letter, I think she is being reasonable. If she really can get your work displayed in a gallery, it would seem like a great opportunity to make lemonade out of some lemons.
    Im not offended by the images or the words but that doesnt really matter. The owner decided it didnt fit the environment she wanted. She exercised her right to terminate the contract. The question now becomes what compensation needs to be made. Think of $300 and an opening at a gallery as a first offer and negotiate from there. Maybe counter offer with $500, the gallery and another shot at the cafe in the next 12 months but with an 80/20 split?

  20. jay says:

    Whoever said not to accept the 300 dollars is correct if you plan on trying to get more than that. I am not a lawyer but I am very very familiar with the law. This is under 5000 dollars and last I knew this is a small claim. That means that you must (or can?) represent yourself. Years ago you couldn’t drag lawyers into small claims.

    I see a lot of stupid comments about how the owner can do what she wants because it is her gallery and much other mushy BS comments abuot how she seems reasonable, etc. BULLSHIT. James Li knows his shit…reread his comment. I am not sure of all the facts here cause I only hear this woman’s side of things, but based on what she says occurred, she can probably get more than 300 dollars back (I think at least 1/2) given that she is able to present herself reasonably to the judge. It is worth pursuing if only in principle. Morally and ethically speaking the owner is simply wrong. Legally, this is up to a judge….but SF judges are usually reasonable in small claims if you present yourself well and don’t come off as a whack job. IMO from what I can see, the owner is legally wrong as well.

  21. nick says:

    varese, i love the work, the statement is fantastic. but honestly, yougotta pick your battles. i dont feel this is particularly “right” but i think the owner handled it best she could. if you take an owner of a cafe to court for this, honestly, in my opinion, you look like the dick

  22. tobeyola says:

    Varese, Your work is beautiful. My favorite in the series was “March”: so lovely, haunting, and evocative. I like Ritual Roasters, too, or did, and I was offended that the owner thinks people go there for escapism and to look at pictures of birds on wires. People go there for awesome espresso and the (owner’s, apparent) idea that providing an opportunity for espresso drinkers to contemplate stirring, substantive art like yours is somehow inappropriate (bad for business?) really disturbs me. I hope you find the right place to show your work. Best wishes.

  23. Walter says:

    So, what happened in the end? Did you take the legal path (somehow, I hope you didn’t) or could you work something out with Eileen’s gallery friend? Would be interesting to know whether this worked out for you to some extent … Thanks. Walter

  24. Varese says:

    Well, I never understood why this thread and so many others became discussions of legal points between the various posters. I don’t think that’s very interesting but, no, I haven’t sued. I also never understood why most photographers — not all, by any means — thought that someone who would treat me as badly as she did would then eagerly get me all the attention I could ever dream of in a world-famous gallery. What would make anyone even believe that she actually has important gallery connections — that is itself absurd.

    I prefer to think of it in my own terms and in my own terms I have had great success: the work has been seen by thousands; I have had meaningful and moving exchanges with many people who’ve gotten something out of it — including in this thread. I continue to shoot; I continue to feel good about shooting. So, thank you for asking. It worked out for me indeed.