Follow Voicebox on Twitter Follow Voicebox on Facebook
Follow Voicebox on Facebook

Nights at the Museum, When Fun Trumps Art

April 18, 2010

It’s hard to talk about museums’ after-hours programs without getting confused. Differentiating among Nightlife (at the California Academy of Sciences), After Dark (the Exploratorium) and L@TE (Berkeley Art Museum) — in name, and in concept — is not easy.

As in New York and Los Angeles, these events have become de rigueur in the Bay Area. Some institutions, like the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, with its Big Idea Night parties, offer free programs. Its latest Big Idea Night — which included D.J.’s, dancers and various artists, as well as the opportunity to explore exhibitions — attracted about 2,500 visitors, the highest tally since the program began in January 2009.

Other institutions try adventurous programming. The Sexplorations soiree at the Exploratorium, which featured a talk about procreation and films about mating rituals, attracted more than 2,200, the largest series attendance to date.

But despite these efforts and their popularity, a similitude often prevails: D.J.’s spinning electronic music, talks, art-house movies and the indispensable cash bar. An artistically satisfying after-hours event goes further than simply throwing together quirky attractions, like a modern-day version of a Victorian fun fair for young professionals. To stand out, the programming should make the art on display come to life in ways that are not necessarily possible when visitors are walking through exhibition halls during normal hours.

The most memorable events tend to be those that viscerally connect with an institution’s exhibitions or its overall aesthetic. Few programs I have experienced in the Bay Area match the wonder of an evening I spent at the Old Operating Theater Museum in London last May. The intimate relationship between the atmospheric demonstrations and displays — which took visitors back to the 19th century, when the building served as the site of amputations — and the cramped, shadowy space helped history and art to coalesce in an unforgettable way.

Without the daytime bustle, the floorboards seemed to creak more loudly. A hanging skeleton cast unearthly shadows on the walls. By the time we were ushered into the theater for a presentation about the building’s gruesome history, I had already traveled back in time in my mind.

Local museums have yet to match the Old Operating Theater. As one of the most popular purveyors of evening events locally, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is certainly trying to produce something memorable.

“I want to create a socially engaged experience,” said Frank Smigiel, the museum’s associate curator of public programs, “but one that is less of a party and more of a curated event driven by artists.”

So far, the museum has only partly succeeded. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural Now Playing event in February 2008, “Weimar New York,” was a lively musical revue that brought together drag artists from the Bay Area and the East Coast. If the event had been developed in conjunction with an exhibition of paintings from the Weimar era, it might have created a stronger link between the nihilistic, anything-goes atmosphere of 1920s and early ’30s Germany and the anxiety many people felt over that country’s fiscal woes. Instead, it amounted to a entertaining night of cabaret.

A more recent Now Playing event I attended last month had very little to do with the museum’s gallery programming, which includes its 75th-anniversary exhibition and a Luc Tuymans retrospective. Though the occasion attracted just under 1,000 people, the galleries were rather sparsely occupied. Perhaps more people would have paid attention to what was going on in the exhibition halls if the event’s programming had informed (and been informed by) the work on the institution’s walls.

Generally, the evening events that provide the instant gratification of a lively social atmosphere are not ultimately the most memorable. I had a terrific time jumping around to the sounds of D.J.’s from the Oakland collective thePeople and watching the visual artist Mear One paint a surrealist urban landscape on a canvas at this month’s Big Idea Night. And at a recent Berkeley Art Museum’s L@TE event, I zoned out contentedly to a duet between the cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and the percussionist P. C. Muñoz.

Connecting evening events with the museum’s broader programming and aesthetic may not be a goal for all institutions. Some are more interested in creating fluid, abstract experiences that play on visitors’ desires to flit among a variety of attractions rather than deeply engage with a single idea. The trouble is that this approach tends to amplify the programs’ social aspects over the art. The events might bring in more young people, but they often don’t galvanize hearts and minds.

Some coming after-hours fare shows promise, though. The Exploratorium’s After Dark event on May 6, “Imiakea: Navigating Polynesian Art and Science,” ties into its Polynesian navigation installation, “Reading Sea and Sky,” with Hawaiian music and displays. And the planned “Ritlab” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum this summer will explore food, drink and art making connected to Jewish practices along with the exhibition “Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life.”

Art institutions should think more creatively about how to relate their after-hours programming to their core projects or mission. D.J.’s, henna tattoo artists and artisanal cheese makers add atmosphere, but unless more is done to distinguish these programs from one another, visitors may soon opt to spend their free evenings not at the museums, but at actual parties.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home