Each Friday night, the de Young Museum in San Francisco has "Cultural Encounters" where the museum stays open late and offers a variety of interdisciplinary arts programs, including performances and interactive art projects for kids and adults. In addition to its usual cafe, there is also a no-host cocktail bar to help people enjoy the evening. This week's theme was celebrating the return of the Tutankhamun exhibit to the museum, which had originally presented it thirty years ago.
I was really excited by the idea of turning an art museum into a giant party. I thought people would have fun creating and mingling with a little social lubricant. Instead of the inane small talk that usually accompanies cocktail parties, guests could start conversations with strangers by commenting on a three thousand year-old sculpture. I was sorely disappointed.
There was almost no mingling, and very little creating of art. I feel the main factor contributing to this was space. The museum was set up so that the central lobby area and a few small rooms were accessible free of charge. Entering any of the exhibits required buying an admissions ticket, and visiting the Tutankhamun exhibit required a special pass (around $30). Food and drink were not allowed in the exhibit spaces. Also, the interactive art, bar, and food were all closeted away in small rooms, while the lobby housed spectacular belly-dancing and Mideastern music performances.
The result was that people had to actively choose between being a silent and seated witness to sensual music and dance for free while enjoying their beverage of choice, painting clay rocks in a room on the other side of the building (the interactive art), or paying to look at the exhibits. 95% of people choose the free belly-dancing.
The result was that the evening basically turned into a performance venue with some activities to entertain children. The exhibits were left barren and empty, giving them a cavernous tomb-like feel that was even less conducive to conversation than usual.
While I understand concerns about having food and drink close to exhibit pieces, it seems like there could be a way to bring the performance, interactive art, exhibits, and drink closer together so that there could be a free flow of movement between the areas. People could make art while watching the performance, or look at paintings while listening to music. It might help reduce the feeling of being either in a concert hall or a crypt, and feeling uncomfortable taking in either.
Still, I'm interested in going back sometime in the future and seeing if the feel is any different with less enticing performances.