- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

At This Is Not That Cafe, patrons are part of the art. The cafe, which opened May 7 in the cafe space at the Phillips Collection in Northwest, is using playful touches of the visual and cerebral to get visitors to rethink what art is and where it comes from. Visitors still can just stop by and enjoy a muffin and coffee. Or they can be part of the creative process of observing, thinking, discussing and creating.

“I wanted to open the door of the Phillips to contemporary and lively discussions of art,” says Vesela Sretenovic, who took over in January as the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “I wanted to get people thinking ‘How do we actually experience art outside of a museum?’ Do you experience art differently in a different context? Yes, but everyone will have different answers. We have a fantastic collection of traditional art, but this is the 21st century, so that is not all there is. There is art in movies, music, books, on the Web.

“This is not Starbucks, or any other cafe,” she says, “but it is associated with what we think of a cafe.”

Those blurred boundaries of art and life are divided into four areas of This Is Not That Cafe. The art is created by New York artists affiliated with the dBfoundation, an arts organization.

The Wall component has poster-size frames with “this is not that Cafe” scribbled almost throughout. Look closely, and a 4-by-4-inch section of the center of the poster is actually a blank space partially filled in with artists’ work - drawings, sayings, poems and information about the cafe. Ms. Sretenovic calls it “ongoing art,” as patrons never know what they might find in the blank space upon a return visit.

For the Book component, the museum has solicited books from poets and authors. Their contributions are what they associate with the idea of a cafe. That makes for an eclectic and growing collection, featuring books about everything from Franz Kafka to how to speak to your dog. Patrons are invited to read and discuss while they eat.

The Game component features a box of board games conceived and designed by artists. What makes it art? The games are one-of-a-kind originals, and yet participants can change the rules as they go.

“The idea is that rules are fluid,” says museum spokeswoman Shira Pinsker.

Finally, the Food component explores the idea of “desire, possession and satisfaction, offering items available and unavailable for consumption,” according to museum materials.

This is where a visit to This Is Not That Cafe can get confusing, especially if one visits during one of the Cafe Nights, held on the first Thursday of the month.

At the opening May 7, artists created their view of food, including a Cubist Tapas Menu, a Cezanne Salad, Fried Milk and Weeping Flounder. But like admirers of precious art in a museum, patrons could only look at the food and imagine where creator Elaine Tin Nyo got her inspiration.

Meanwhile, the staff at On the Fly, which runs the cafe’s catering operation, created reproductions of the food art, which patrons could buy and consume - similar to how one would buy a poster of a priceless original.

“The Food part is a good example of ‘what is real art? What is fake art?’ ” Ms. Sretenovic says.”What is it you can consume? Does it make you hungry?”

The This Is Not That Cafe will run through the end of the year, with the possibility of a permanent extension, she says.

The next hosted Cafe night - theme, games - will be June 4, when artist Tom Russotti will unveil a puzzlelike sculpture titled “Geometrical Puzzle for the Youth” in the museum’s courtyard. The sculpture references Kenneth Noland’s painting “In the Garden,” which is part of the Phillips’ permanent collection.

Other upcoming Cafe Nights and the theme for each include July 2, poetry; Aug. 6, play; Sept. 3, word.

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