Art throws a party

Looking at a painting, really looking at it, is at heart a solitary, contemplative experience. Unfortunately, a handful of quiet people thoughtfully encountering art does not add up to the attention-getting essentials: revenue, crowds, that high priest known as "buzz." Taking a clue from other around-town "happenings" dense with hip factor, visual art came into its own as an excuse for a party in 2000, coalescing around the Orlando Museum of Art's "1st Thursdays" series. As a result, mixed media became a mixed blessing.

The roots of this sudden flowering have been lingering here. Other artistic mediums understood that when an event happens, it helps to have a happening. Thus the Florida Film Festival has taken to previewing itself at Sapphire, with the May 2000 installment awash in martinis, film clips and the stripped-down punk-pluck of Nutrajet. The final Central Florida Film & Video Festival kicked itself off in February by turning the scratched-and-dented Kit Kat Club into something altogether exotic, as belly dancers and henna-tattoo artists weaved between billowy fabrics that were hung from the ceiling to serve as makeshift screens for video projections. Tres impressive.

When it came to making painting and sculpture into a social scene, the annual Nude Nite was a catalyst -- the space always ad-hoc, the art always uneven, the attendees with bare midriffs and retro-geek black-frame glasses. There would be wine, and there would be live music. On a less elaborate level, a few clubs like Harold & Maude's and the Blue Room have regularly adorned their walls with art and hosted modest openings for the occasions.

Truth be told, the Orlando Museum of Art has never been much of a pioneer, but in this case it looked around (and studied other big art institutions across the country) and said, "Aha!" OMA had been hosting sporadic events labeled "Art After Dark," but February saw the first of the monthly "1st Thursday" series inside its expansive, sterile walls.

Subsequently, the "1st Thursdays" events -- featuring a mix-and-match combo of local artwork, wine, food, live music and performances -- boomed. Attendance at the first few hovered in the 600-700 range, but after a summer lull, the last couple's 1,000-plus guests have overflowed onto the museum's patio.

OMA has tapped into something here. While the people turning up at Nude Nite and film-fest events were generally those who on any other night would be planted on a barstool at Kit Kat or Sapphire -- the pre-existing downtown usual suspects -- the sheen of the art museum attracted the slightly more upscale young professional crowd, those less likely to be half-employed waiters.

"The purpose of ‘1st Thursdays' is to generate membership," says Darlene Sanchez, OMA's membership coordinator. But she emphasizes that it's also "an effort to reach out to our local artistic community, and an opportunity for them to display their art inside the museum." Indeed, just in pure numbers, "1st Thursdays" potentially give local artists an audience they simply can't get anywhere else.

mostly the art is just background noise. "I hear these things are marketed as singles events," said one woman at the Dec. 7 "1st Thursday," themed "Black and White." Because of this tidbit of hearsay, she was a little curious, a little appalled -- but, most important, she was at the lower end of OMA's 25- to 45-year-old target market, and she looked great. Even after being assured that the gatherings were not marketed outright as singles events, she was skeptical. "I feel like I should have a big ‘S' on me," she joked, looking around the room.

Outside on the patio, a young man's voice rose above the others in his smartly dressed cluster: "I love the artsy-fartsy crowd," he declared. One can only wonder if he loved -- or noticed -- the artsy-fartsy art.

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