Culturefix's Ari Stern Talks Art in Bars and the Trouble with NIMBYism

Culturefix's Cole Schaffer (left) and Ari Stern
Culturefix's Cole Schaffer (left) and Ari Stern

About a year ago, two guys opened a bar on the Lower East Side. Sound like a familiar story? What makes this one a little different is that the bar is also an art gallery. And, despite having no kitchen to speak of, it also offers pretty great food at awesome prices. Co-owners Cole Schaffer and Ari Stern sometimes parlay their kitchen skills into full dinner parties, a monthly supper club called Dinnerfix, to be precise. But on most nights, Culturefix is just your average neighborhood bar-slash-art space. Stern explains.

What made you want to open a bar in a gallery ... or is it a gallery in a bar?

Cole and I have a restaurant background, so there was no way we would ever want to open a restaurant. The cost was too high and the risk too overwhelming, and since we like to drink ourselves, we figured a bar was the best way to go. In our search for a location, we found 9 Clinton Street by chance. The gallery was clearly the best part of the space, so it was kind of an organic development.

Do you have much of an art background?

As a chef, I feel that is my art background. Cole has been influenced by his father in photography and trained as a glassblower in Venice. Aside from that peripheral involvement in the arts, we have deferred entirely to our gallery director, Lia Wortendyke. Lia has created traditional and performance art programming with great success. Our collective goals have always been to try anything twice, and always keep an open mind so we don't get bored doing the same thing every day.

What's your take on the drinking scene on the Lower East Side?

I honestly don't think about the '"drinking scene." People drink everywhere. The Lower East Side has changed more in response to the Community Board 3 moratorium on liquor licenses and the NYPD policy of offense against bars.

You recently had run-ins with the police, despite beating them in court.

They have created an environment of fear that limits the creativity of all of us to offer new and exciting things to guests from all over the world who choose the neighborhood as a place to come for something less cookie-cutter. In short, the cool, fun, familiar places are targets and the cheesy, huge, bridge-and-tunnel funnels are allowed to continue to change our city into a Friday and Saturday cesspool.

Do art and drinking go particularly well together?

As far as I'm concerned, if every museum, gallery, art studio, theater, performance-art venue, and music venue had a beer and wine bar, I would be thrilled. Not Yellow Tail Shiraz at a gallery in Chelsea and not Bud Light at Roseland Ballroom. What I want to see is curating food and drink with as much efforts the performance.   You also do a supper-club series. ... Why not just have a restaurant instead? Restaurants are expensive and a pain in the ass to run. We select the guests, the menu, the servers, the wine pairings, so we control every aspect of the dining experience.

Do you have a favorite drink for taking in art with?

I like beer, but it's a great feeling to get it from a cocktail server in a gallery.

Does the art and booze ever clash in an unexpected or unfortunate way?

People are cooler than we expected, but we do need to hang artwork in creative ways to keep it protected in case of any kind of mistake or sloppiness.

What do you recommend in case of sloppiness?

I don't very frequently get hungover -- working behind a bar, it gets tough to really get hammered. But as it does happen, I drink a ton of water before sleeping and generally start my day at the bar with a beer or two, which always clears the head. And cheeseburgers don't hurt.

Have a restaurant tip or other food news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.

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