Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Should Your Bar Hire an Artist-in-Residence?

Chopper in Nashville. Image: Christy Hunter

The 16-foot-tall robot sculpture suspended over the bar is the first clue that Nashville’s Chopper has a visual style that’s all its own. Other signals emerge over the course of a drink or two: cartoon-y Tiki mugs created via a 3D printer; futuristic masks adorning the wall; a series of blacklight orbs suspended from the ceiling, which cast an eerie blue glow on the menus and leis worn by bartenders.

The visual fireworks make sense when you consider that Chopper has its own artist-in-residence, Bryce McCloud. While few bars have the resources to hire an artist to completely reimagine a space, there are benefits to incorporating artistic elements into a bar. That might take the form of dramatic glassware, paintings by local artists hanging on the walls or even a bespoke cocktail pick designed to add a little spectacle.

Christy Hunter

“Art has become the advertising budget,” says McCloud. In the age of Instagram and experiential spaces—like the infinity mirror-lined entryway designed to encourage selfies or an odd-textured wall meant for touching—artistic flourishes can help generate excitement. In theory, a drink is a commodity a guest can get anywhere, says McCloud. “The experience of getting the drink is what we’re giving people.”

How Chopper Did It

That experience doesn’t always come easy. Building the “‘Star Wars’-meets-Tiki” vibe, as the bar’s co-founders like to describe it, took two years. The 60-seat bar finally opened in May 2019.

The seeds for the project were first planted about eight or nine years ago, says co-founder Mike Wolf, when he and co-founder Andy Mumma both tended bar at Nashville’s now-closed Holland House Bar. “We always said, Wouldn’t it be fun one day to open a Tiki bar?” says Wolf, who went on to establish the bar program at locavore restaurant Husk, starting in 2013, while Mumma became a serial entrepreneur, opening a collection of high-end coffee shops, among other ventures.

Christy Hunter

Yet it took the inclusion of Nashville artist and designer McCloud, also a co-owner, to shepherd the vision away from traditional Tiki kitsch. McCloud was not a complete stranger to the bar industry. His graphic design firm, Isle of Printing, has designed packaging for Tennessee Brew Works and an elaborate, mural-like installation of colorful cans at Pinewood Social, among other booze-adjacent projects.

McCloud “always had an obsession with robots,” says Wolf. “He wanted to build an Americana-style robot off the side of the road that was 50 feet tall.” After joking about the relative merits of robots versus Tiki, “we said, Let’s do both.”

Christy Hunter

With little prior knowledge of Tiki culture, McCloud brought a fresh eye to the project, just as a prime space in the East Nashville neighborhood became available. Starting with a backstory about a boat called Chopper sailing into a laboratory full of “ancient robot designs,” McCloud designed futuristic Tiki-inspired patterns that later would be laser-cut into tabletops and elaborate wooden panels for the walls. “I see it as a theatrical set,” he says. Sometimes McCloud sets up shop in the bar, making Tiki masks on the spot for guests to wear, drawing them in like actors in a scene.

One unforeseen bonus: The sci-fi trappings help deflect controversy about issues that have plagued more traditional South Seas-themed bars, namely concerns about colonialism and authenticity. “We didn’t really want to get involved with that,” says Wolf. “We wanted to do our own thing. This was a new way of looking at it.”

Christy Hunter

Here, the co-owners of Chopper offer advice on how to incorporate artistic elements into your bar program.

1. Hire an Artist or Go DIY?

A collaborator can help execute on a vision but only if you have one, says Wolf: “If you’re not sure whether the concept needs to have an artist attached to it, then maybe it’s not the best idea.”

2. Communicate!

“Especially at the beginning, you have to have the freedom to sit down and talk about what your goals are and what your vision is,” says McCloud. “It may not be ‘I need 18 robot heads,’ but what’s the big picture and the vibe? Make sure everyone is on the same page and lets the artist do their thing.”

3. Define a Budget

Like films, Wolf says, “You always hear it’s going to cost more than you think and take twice as long. You have to plan for that.” Especially if you’re dreaming big, make sure there’s capital to operate.

Christy Hunter

4. Find Ways to Monetize

For Chopper, that meant partnering with Tiki Farm to produce mugs and glassware for guests to purchase as a souvenir of their visit.

5. Go All-In

“You have to go at it and commit to it as hard as possible,” says Wolf. “People can tell after a few minutes if someone went 100% on something or not.”

6. Don’t Forget the Drinks

Art can generate excitement for bartenders as well as guests. Wolf says that working with an artist-in-residence “made me want to tweak things and make them ours.” For example, the theme-inspired drinks such as the Robo Zombie (fassionola, Jamaican rum, flaming cinnamon) and the Chopper Stowaway (fig, tequila, lemon).“You’re always looking at what’s next,” he says. “Being surrounded by an art exhibit made me push, for sure.”