Entertainment Gains a Foothold In the Company of Masterpieces

Picture this: an outdoor garden party on a hot Friday evening. A mariachi band is playing, and people are eating, chatting, and strolling.

Now picture: art museum.

If these two images seem incongruous, think again.

This was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), a few weeks ago. As part of a program called First Fridays, the fiesta attracted hundreds of people who came to hear "La Bamba" in the company of centuries-old sculptures.

Continuing a nationwide trend to broaden audiences, boost attendance, and dispel a sometimes-stuffy image, art museums across the country are reaching out to the public with renewed creativity.

In addition to offering family activities, film series, and educational programs, these institutions are positioning themselves not only as places to see and learn about art, but as social centers for entertainment and culture.

Whether it's family day or a fashion show, the broad brushstroke message is clear: Museums offer something for everyone.

Jill Axelrod, a young occupational therapist, has attended three First Fridays at the MFA. "It's one of the most fun things to do on a Friday evening right after work," she says. "It's so cultured: We hear music and socialize surrounded by great works of art."

Typically she takes a break midway through the 6-to-9 p.m. soiree to check out the galleries. Although Ms. Axelrod says she might visit a museum anyway, "I've definitely gone more in the past year than I normally would. In fact, I'm going to get a membership."

That is music to Malcolm Rogers's ears. As director of the MFA, he hopes to attract more people like Axelrod. "Clearly something like First Fridays is the kind of event many museums across the country are doing to win audiences - to get people into the museum - after work, particularly. You provide a pleasant occasion and an opportunity to enjoy music ... but also an opportunity for people to look at the museum."

A similar program has just started at the Seattle Art Museum, called After Hours. "Poetry readings are the hot thing," reports spokeswoman Linda Williams. And, like many museums nowadays, they offer live music regularly. "In a way, it puts us in competition with other nightlife," Ms. Williams says.

Competition is a key word. In an age where blockbuster movies draw millions in one weekend and TV is the leisure activity of choice, museums are wise to consider what potential audiences want.

"If we offer an entertainment experience as well as an art experience, that allows us to compete for people's leisure time," says Mary Haus, director of communications for the Whitney Art Museum in New York. The push to make museums more like social centers grew out of the '80s, she notes, "stepping up to the idea that museums could be destination spots."

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Friday Night Jazz has been a tradition since 1992. Longer hours and being open on Mondays have also made the museum more accessible. Spokeswoman Stefanie Salata explains that museums are "getting smart and realistic about what their audiences need. Instead of lamenting people's lack of leisure time, this is being in step with it."

Part of the effort to get people through the doors who might not ordinarily visit art galleries involves dispelling museum mystique. "There is this problem in our culture that a number of people see museums not as palaces but as fortresses," says the MFA's Mr. Rogers. "And they wonder what happens when you get in there. 'How do you behave?' So if we can persuade people to come into a comparatively gentle, enjoyable social experience or an exhibit on a new type of subject that they really want to see, we hope they will come back to look at other things the museum has to offer."

What also makes museums "destinations" are added-value options, including a good restaurant or cafe, places to rest, and appealing retail stores. Some arts writers refer to this kind of outreach as the museums-as-upscale-mall concept.

Critics may caution against commercialism and gimmickry. But as Rogers explains, at least as far as the MFA is concerned, the goal has not changed: "What we're trying to do is present the same image of excellence that the museum had 50 years ago but in a different way. We're trying to win people for art and that's the central mission, but there are just more and different ways of doing it now. The public has different expectations, but central to it all is that we all care about great art."

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