On any given night, the main dining room at Piccolo's, the popular Italian restaurant in Columbia, is filled with patrons enjoying steaming plates of risotto, spaghetti and veal chops. The lighting is romantic, the noise level is high.
Off to the side, away from preoccupied diners and hustling wait staff, is the Florentine Room, which usually is reserved for receptions, parties and the overflow crowd on the restaurant's busiest weekend nights.
It's also a de facto art gallery with a respected curator who screens and chooses work from local artists, hangs their art on the white walls of the glassed-in room and supervises six or seven exhibits each year.
Piccolo's can't take credit for the idea of adorning its walls with original art. It is a growing trend -- suburban artists agree to show their work in unusual and nontraditional places to gain exposure.
It's a win-win situation. Artists gain attention and exposure through their affiliations with restaurants -- especially if they are as popular as Piccolo's -- and restaurant owners are only too happy to decorate their walls with free art.
If the artwork happens to change every couple of months, so much the better.
Turning the Florentine Room into a miniature art gallery three years ago seemed like the perfect marriage between art and commerce, says Piccolo's general manager, Anna Mulvany.
"We put a lot of thought into the ambience we create here," Mulvany says. "We have music and good food, so art seems like a natural extension, because it can touch people's senses. It's not something that I ever intellectualize, but it adds to the total experience."
Joan Bevelaqua, an artist and the curator of Mill River Gallery in the historic Oella Mill in Ellicott City, has been Piccolo's art liaison for a little more than a year. For artists who aren't affiliated with conventional galleries, Bevelaqua says, showing their work in the Florentine Room can be mutually beneficial.
"Piccolo's figures the more artists they are hanging at one time, the more people would come to the restaurant," says Bevelaqua, who receives a small fee from the restaurant. "We send out notices announcing that there's a new show there, and we leave brochures in the restaurant with the price list. The downside is that the Florentine Room isn't used all the time."
There's another downside, she acknowledges.
"Sometimes I have a hard time convincing some artists to hang their work in a restaurant. The problem is that some of them feel like they're just decorating the walls and people aren't going to buy anything.
"But, on the whole, most artists are happy to show," she says. "They feel like if they have the work and it's going to be hung, it might as well be in a place where tons of people visit."
Artists who aren't represented by a gallery can have a tough time getting their work shown, says Al Bishop, a dentist whose watercolors are on exhibit in the Florentine Room through the first week of January.
"It's very demanding and challenging and expensive to put on a one-person show," Bishop says. "This is a good time of year to be showing because of the holidays, so I'm hoping I'll have some sales."
Don't count on it, says Glenelg artist and gallery owner Tatiana, who has had a large, $1,000 ornamental urn "on loan" to Piccolo's for more than a year.
"I've never gotten anything concrete as far as sales go from showing at a restaurant, but you never know," says Tatiana, who goes by only her first name. "It's highly unusual for them to sell, but it's very hard out there, and we'll try everything.
"And you never know: Someone might see something somewhere and tell someone else, and you might get something sold," she adds. "It doesn't happen very often, but at the very least, it's an opportunity to be seen. Artists are grateful to have any venue to be seen." Mulvany says that while each piece of art has a price tag, the restaurant -- which does not receive a commission from the sales -- rarely receives purchase requests from customers.
"It's honestly not something I've ever discussed with a patron," Mulvany says. "It's never been expressed to me."
Tatiana's urn has been a popular attraction at the restaurant, says Mulvany, adding, "She's doing a booming business. She's had people come to her [studio and shop] from [seeing her piece] here."
These days, any place that can guarantee a captive audience for more than five minutes can transform itself into an art salon.
Art can, and does, turn up in unlikely places: the waiting room at the gynecologist's office, the restrooms of large bookstores, smoky coffeehouses, suburban bank branches, anterooms in top-secret federal buildings.
Maybe a restaurant doesn't seem such a bad place, after all.
Artist Mike Tompkins of Ellicott City, who makes large-scale stained-glass pieces with his wife, Mary Tompkins, says they probably have sold as many pieces at Piccolo's as any other venue.
Piccolo's will "never be the kind of place where you'll sell much work," he says, "but it's not a bad place to start."