After attending the BMA’s Party of the Century on Saturday, November 15, I am still scratching my head. It was a fantastic event. I had a great time and I am thrilled that the event was sold out, but there was something that was, for me, slightly off. Who were all those men in suits with beautiful women in floor length gowns? Who were all those elderly women with their hair in stiff, pouffy coiffures?
Barbara Mikulski was there and so was Mayor Rawlings-Blake. Marty Bass was sighted and Mera Rubell wore a silver Warhol wig. But who were most of the gorgeous strangers that surrounded me at this thing? For me, this event had an odd sense of unreality because the usual crowd, the artists who frequent events at the museum, were noticeably absent. It was like being in a dream where you visit your best friend’s house but her whole family has turned into giant pandas or extra terrestrials or Republicans.
I am not saying this is a problem; at $75 a ticket, the Party of the Century sold out (approximately 400 tickets) in just a few weeks. Actually, this sends an incredible message of support and love towards the museum, and just proves there are a lot of people who wanted to celebrate the BMA turning 100, and many who want to contribute financially to the museum’s future. The only reason I purchased a ticket was because I was on the party committee and was warned that tickets would probably sell out the next day. Besides the Party of the Century after-party, the BMA featured a black tie dinner and gala for several hundred guests at $500 a head or table sponsorships for 10 – 25 g’s. At a certain point in the evening, these well-dressed guests filtered into the crowded after-party as well.
There were about ten artists that I knew at this thing, and it was great fun to see them all dressed up, but I felt slightly nervous all night, like a party crasher. If I am completely honest, the only time I felt like I was on planet Baltimore was when I encountered the beautiful, eccentric, and theatrical performance art of LABBODIES, chosen to interact and perform at the event.
I lost count, but I think there were about 12 members of the group present and most of their costumes resembled futuristic Christmas trees, robotic flowers, and space age ballet. Many of them wore layers of silver and sparkly plastic with lights embedded in their costumes and metallic makeup. One performer in particular, meandering around on toe shoes, stopped to do an impromptu half-twerk in front of members of the Mayor’s staff, who gleefully captured his performance their phones. This event stands out in my mind from the night because it was a particularly uncomfortable-funny ‘real’ moment. I felt like myself in Baltimore at this time, where an authentic connection was being made and different worlds were colliding. This felt right to me and I commend both LABBODIES, and the museum for selecting them for this event, because their presence was so very necessary. We just could have used about a hundred more of them to infiltrate the party completely.
What is the purpose of a museum? Who is a museum for? Their main job is to collect, preserve, and share the objects that define our time on earth for future generations. This is an expensive undertaking and museums need funding and fundraisers to make this happen. In this department artists are the beneficiaries of this type of investment and activity.
For the multitude of artists who frequent the BMA, especially now that it is free to visit, this museum in particular is a church, a sacred space, a second home. I wish the Warhols were stretched a bit tighter, but overall, the BMA is a place where all types of people can come together and experience a great selection of art of the past and art of this century. The BMA is a place that thousands of local artists love wholeheartedly and I know that many are thrilled to hang out on the new Merrick steps and enter through those giant doors. So what kept them home?
After realizing that most of this city’s artists opted out of attending this celebration, either by procrastinating to buy tickets, assuming they would receive free tickets, or by not being able to afford one, it seems that a piece of the puzzle is missing. Sure, $75 is beyond the price point of many artists who struggle to afford their daily lives, and, honestly, most artists don’t need to spend that kind of money to party, even if it is for a good cause. However, for those of us who feel like the BMA is OURS, and so many of us do, why should we choose not to participate in celebrating this historic occasion?
I know that there are many other free events planned at the BMA in coming weeks and months for artists to attend. The Party of the Century is just a party. But what is the purpose of a party? Obviously this one had a necessary fundraising purpose, but another main purpose of a party is to connect with those who are different, to meet new people. Last night, hundreds gathered together, united in love and support of a great institution, but an opportunity for cross-cultural connection was mostly missed.
I think the beautiful suit and gown-wearing people who care enough to attend an event like this need contemporary artists in their lives. I think they may not know it yet, but they need us – not just to discover and revitalize under-utilized areas of the city, but to help them to appreciate and understand the unique place we all choose to inhabit together through our work.
I believe the artists in this town owe it to themselves to get to know those who choose to invest financially in supporting a museum. I am making an assumption that most of the people bought tickets to the BMA Gala or Party of the Century because they love the museum, love art, or at least love the idea of it. How many of these people know an artist personally? How many of them desire to connect, converse, or collect locally? If not given a chance, the numbers will remain low.
For those who are regular readers, you know that I feel strongly that artists and non-artists – especially those with jobs and mediocre art on their walls – need each other, but are not connecting in this city. We don’t go to the same bars. We don’t attend the same events. We don’t read the same publications. For the most part, socioeconomic status divides us and our chosen cliques reinforce this. As artists, part of our job is to extend the olive branch to those who don’t understand what we do. Part of being an artist is to reach out into the wider world and share our ideas, and this is a lot of work on top of all the other work we do. Maybe it’s not fair, but it’s necessary.
What obligation, if any, do the artists of this city have towards our local museum? Are black tie fundraisers best left to funders, with other types of events more appropriate for artists? Is this a natural and necessary division along economic lines or are we perpetuating stereotypes of artists ourselves?
Last night a large group convened in a place so many of us love dearly to celebrate its 100th birthday, but to me, it seemed that only half of the party showed up. If money is dividing these groups, how can that gap be bridged so that Baltimore’s cultural ecosystem can grow, thrive, and enhance a collective living experience for all of us?
Author Cara Ober is a Baltimore-based artist and founding editor at BmoreArt.
It’s not too late to join in the BMA celebration, no matter what your economic status is. Everyone is invited to attend on November 23 for the American Wing Opening Celebration or to become a Member to attend the exclusive First Night Preview Party.