Workhorse Coffee Bar and the Smallest Museum in St. Paul offer much more than caffeine and art

December 24, 2014
By Levi Weinhagen
Original story posted here by the Knight Foundation on December 10, 2014


The story of Workhorse Coffee Bar and the Smallest Museum in St. Paul is one of relationships. It’s about the relationship between art and commerce, between residents and visitors, between business owners and vendors. And it’s about the relationship between paying your bills and feeding your soul.

How about a little context?

WorkHorse Coffee Bar is a new neighborhood coffee shop slated to open on Raymond and University Avenue in early 2015. It is being created and operated by business and life partners Shannon Forney and Ty Barnett. Outside the home of  WorkHorse is a 2’ x 3’ vintage fire-hose cabinet that, thanks in part to a Knight Arts Challenge grant, will become the Smallest Museum in St. Paul.

For Barnett, the coffee shop and attached museum are a way to bring together her commitment to genuine human relationships and her decades of experience working for some of the best coffee purveyors in St. Paul. For Forney, the venture allows her to combine her background in live clown performance with her master’s degree in arts and business administration. The through-line in Barnett and Forney’s past work and this new project is a deep dedication to human connection and a desire to focus as much on the process as the product.

I recently spoke with Forney about the relationship between the coffee shop and the museum, the relationship they’d like to build with their neighborhood, and the relationship between her work as a clown and her work as an administrator.

“For better or for worse, I think I do have a simple clown optimism.”

Forney says that she and Barnett want WorkHorse to interact with the community through “a deeper relationship with the product and the neighborhood.” The desire for a deeper-than-commerce connection extends to their vendors as well. “Our coffee vendor is a local guy who roasts in super small batches–an artisanal product maker,” Forney reveals. “He’s agreed to be our exclusive roaster, which is really exciting. It’s also a risk. The hope is that these two small businesses are helping each other grow. We really care about him, and he really cares about us. Not just as a business exchange, but we care about the people, too.”

Similarly, Forney’s criteria for art projects to feature at the Smallest Museum in St. Paul include work that “connects to the local, engages the audience and [isn’t] too fussy.” This emphasis on engaging and accessible work is informed by Forney’s background: “Part of [selecting art projects] is figuring out, ‘How am I engaging that playfulness and delight?’ With the clown form, you have to have an audience to create material. You don’t know if it’s funny unless you have people to laugh or not laugh. I think that focus on engaging the audience is from my past history with theater and specifically the clown work.”

What’s compelling about the ideas fueling WorkHorse Coffee Bar and the Smallest Museum in St. Paul is that they demonstrate wonderfully how small business and artistic ideas can exist together. The coffee shop hasn’t opened yet, and the call for proposals for the museum won’t go out until January, so at this point the projects represent a lot of hard work by a few people–with tons of potential. But that potential seems to be on track for success and could create an example of how other entrepreneurs can develop a deep relationship between art, community and business.

If you’d like a cup of coffee: WorkHorse Coffee Bar is slated to open in late January 2015.

If you’d like to submit an exhibit proposal: The Smallest Museum in St. Paul will issue its call for proposals in January 2015.

If you’d like to attend an opening ceremony for an art museum: There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Smallest Museum in St. Paul in June 2015. Follow WorkHorse on Facebook for upcoming details.