EAT ART leverages fine dining to help Venice’s creative culture overcome commercialization

By Christina Campodonico

Trendy shops and restaurants cashing in on Abbot Kinney Boulevard cool can sometimes feel a little too Rodeo Drive to be real, and the local vibe might get a little lost amid all the tourists and big name brands on the block.

But a new grassroots collaboration among Venice artist Barbara Lavery, photographer Debbie Zeitman, writer-director Slyvia Saether and sushi restaurant Wabi Sabi (also known as Wabi Venice after undergoing a stylish interior redecoration last year) aims to help local artists and restaurants benefit from the boulevard’s renaissance and put a community feeling back into fine art and dining.

Called “EAT ART,” the event-based initiative creates partnerships between local artists and eateries.

Artists get a free space to hang their artwork in a restaurant for a few weeks, attracting potential clients’ eyeballs without having to pay a gallery commission fee for any works sold. The restaurant heralds the art hanging with a special menu inspired by the featured artwork on a designated Tuesday night, getting the opportunity to draw in diners on a typically slow evening and turn would-be art collectors into regulars. Think of it as an amped up art show opening with a lot more gourmet food and drinks.

Lavery came up with the idea with Saether, Zeitman and Wabi Venice General Manager Brent Moon after brainstorming ways that the work of local artists could be made more prominent in Venice’s changing social and cultural scene.

“Venice is known as an art community, but it’s very hard to actually see any art,” says Lavery. “There are about 30 places to eat or drink or have coffee or have dinner on Abbot Kinney, and there’s very little local art in any of the restaurants. So we’re trying to bring more visibility to Venice artists.”

And make sure that more dollars land directly in artists’ pockets.

“The restaurant is not taking any commission off of the art. It’s purely selling the art for the artist,” says Lavery. “So this really will allow your art-buying dollars to go to directly supporting the artist and keeping them in the neighborhood.”

For Wabi Sabi’s co-owner Tricia Small, hosting the inaugural “EAT ART” event in April jived well with Wabi’s legacy as a Venice institution.

“To us, art is Venice,” said Small at the “EAT ART” opening on April 11. “We thought that a collaboration with local artists to bring everybody to mingle and communicate would let [people] know that there’s still a soul here, even though it feels a bit commercialized. We wanted people to know that we’re still here, [artists] are still here and the connection of the two could be magical.”

Chef Rain Pantana’s tasting menu for the first “EAT ART” responded to Lavery’s paintings of Joshua trees, sea urchins and abstract landscapes with an exceptional mix of seafood dishes.

The second installment of “EAT ART,” happening Tuesday night at Wabi Venice, features the whimsical and satirical artwork of Venice artist Rohitash Rao paired with a “surrealist sushi” menu ($11) created by Chef Rain.

“It’s going to be like polar bear sushi, or sushi that’s in the shape of fish — or ‘shoe-shi,’ like sushi in the shape of shoes,” says Moon. “This is sushi, but it’s comical.” Just like Rao’s work, which takes a humorous and in-your-face approach to getting your attention.

Wabi Sabi’s Chef Rain brings attention to endangered species — and endangered artists — with a ‘surrealist sushi’ menu
Photo by Chris Aguilar

“It’s like a Yeti shooting lasers out of his eyes with a full moon in the background. … A picture of the Marvel character Thor raising a hammer up in the air, but instead of a hammer it’s actually MC Hammer. It’s hilarious stuff like that,” says Moon, who adds that rows of sake bottles customized by Rao will also line the liquor shelves of Wabi’s bar. (Chef Rain also riffs on an “Adios Motherf**cker” cocktail with an  “Adios Tokyo” style cocktail for $18.)

The presence of Rao’s artwork in the restaurant brings a bit of levity to the serious business of eating sushi and to the serious problems of gentrification that’s impacting Venice’s art community — something that Zeitman has captured in her photography series “Before They Go,” also featured at next week’s “EAT ART” event.

The collection of portraits shows Venice artists in their studios and shares their stories of living, working and making art in Venice in the captions.  Some of those artists have left Venice, others have lingered on, but the aim of the project is to document this moment in Venice’s art scene before rising rents and real estate prices push out too many more artists.

If “Before They Go” is a warning of what Venice stands to lose, then “EAT ART” might be a possible antidote.

“I’m really hoping that as more and more Venice locals acknowledge the value of the artist,” says Zeitman, “that people will say that we desperately want to keep this population here. We want to support their art by purchasing it.

“It’s not enough to be kind of lookie loos who go to a gallery, have a couple wines, say, ‘This is fun,’” she continues. “The artists can’t survive unless people buy their work. And we’re hoping to connect the artists with the incoming new residents who may have a lot of money and recognize that it’s time for them to start an art collection.”

“It’s a first step,” adds Lavery, “just to let people know that artists are here, but they are somewhat in jeopardy and if you’d like to buy art, here’s a great opportunity to do so.”

The next EAT ART happens from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 13. Sign up at
EAT ART at Wabi Sabi Tuesday, June 13, 1635 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice,