MINNEAPOLIS – It’s a bar that serves nothing but tap water. For free.
The concept, developed by two Minneapolis artists, started as pop-ups across the country, ranging from an event at a North Carolina artists’ space to a waterfront fundraiser in Chicago to a four-month run at an art museum in Arkansas.
They’ve been such a hit that Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson are preparing to open a storefront Water Bar in northeast Minneapolis, a taproom serving pints of city water plus limited-edition pours from other communities. Visitors will get to taste and compare, but the goal is bigger: connecting the public with the scientists, utility employees, environmentalists and activists who will serve as bartenders.
“It’s really about opening up a conversation with the idea that ‘Water is all we have,’ which is our tagline, because that’s all we’re serving,” Matteson said. “And then the conversation goes from there.”
The timing is opportune with the widespread attention on lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton making water issues a personal priority for the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The storefront Water Bar, which is slated to open to the public in May, won’t serve pricey boutique “artisanal water” as has been tried elsewhere – just plain-old tap water. Its funding will come from various sources, such as a neighborhood association and a crowdfunding website, as well as money from ongoing pop-up events. Any tips for the bartenders will go toward supporting allied organizations and providing seed funding for community projects.
“What Water Bar does is let communities and experts come together and talk to each other about, ‘What are the issues here? Have you thought about where your water comes from? What are you concerned about when it comes to water?’” said Kate Brauman, lead scientist for the Global Water Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Brauman worked the bar at a sustainability event on campus last year. It was so popular, they ran out of cups.
A 2014 pop-up Water Bar installation at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, was part of a contemporary art exhibition.
“The best art displaces you from your everyday experience and allows you to think creatively and critically about yourself and your place In the world around you. And the Water Bar does that beautifully,” said Chad Alligood, one of the museum’s curators.
The pop-up events also have connected Kloecker and Matteson, who are married, to other water-minded organizations. The Crystal Bridges event led to an invite to the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ annual Taste of the Great Lakes fundraiser last June. There, they served Chicago city water from Lake Michigan; tap water from Toledo, Ohio, which was coping with a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie; and tap water from Green Bay, Wisconsin, which runs a pipe nearly 30 miles to a cleaner part of Lake Michigan, said Jennifer Caddick, the alliance’s engagement director.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, Kloecker recruited city water employees and students from a Cape Fear River Basin program at Guilford College to bartend at a pop-up event in October.
“There were always 15 to 20 people around in front of the Water Bar. You would have thought they were drinking vodka martinis or something,” said Steve Drew, director of Greensboro’s water system.
Some swished the water in their mouths as if they were tasting wine, videos from the event show. Some couldn’t tell the difference between the samples.
A boy whose chin barely came over the bar tried a couple samples and said, “I think I like the orange one best,” referring to a glass jug with a little orange label that meant it came from Reidsville, one of Greensboro’s suppliers.
“All right!” replied bartender Mike Borchers, deputy director of Greensboro’s water system.