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The Local Lens: Art Receptions Aren’t What They Use to Be


  Some time ago I wrote a column about Philadelphia’s whacky reception groupies, or people who seem to spend a lot of time trying to find art receptions in the city that offer free food and drink. While everyone enjoys the delights of an opening reception, I was writing about a core group of serious food “hunters and gatherers” who make it a point to go from reception to reception and gather up as much as free stuff as possible.

  Well, there’s another side to that coin, and it’s this: what about the various art venues in the city that have traditionally always offered food and drink during their opening receptions? How are they holding up?

  They are not holding up well, according to the latest reports.

  Many of the city’s art galleries and other cultural venues have cut back drastically on giveaway food and booze during their opening receptions, and in some cases the contrast to a few years ago is shocking.

  Consider the Plastic Club at 247 S. Camac Street. The Club has always been famous for its monthly Sunday afternoon group exhibitions.  For years club members would contribute various food dishes to this monthly event so that on that one Sunday a month patrons could expect a little something to eat while viewing the new exhibition. Every month was different depending on the food flow, but thick or thin there was always something to nibble on. There was also inexpensive but ample boxed wine, beer and soda. These famous Sunday art parties continued for hours, often spilling out onto the Club’s fantastic backyard patio.

  But just a few months ago a new administration decided that the old Plastic Club Sunday parties were too lavish and that people were coming just for the food, booze and ambience. It was also reported to me that the new president didn’t think it was appropriate that people were drinking wine or beer in the late afternoons. Never mind that this had been the custom at the Club for years—and years. The Plastic Club’s new Board pulled the plug in a radical way because now the monthly events are down to stick pretzels and Donny and Marie Osmond lemonade, if that. Welcome to Salt Lake City!

  The DaVinci Art Galley at 7th and Catherine Streets used to have bountiful opening receptions, but when a new and younger board took over, the receptions were pared down like an onion on the chopping block. Today, the galley might offer a chip or two and maybe even a sip of wine, but not much else.  Can a big bowl of Lay’s potato chips really cost that much money? And why not spring for a cheap generic jug of red wine?

  Sometimes the most successful art galleries are the cheapest in terms of what they give back to patrons who come to their events. These big-name galleries will often advertise their huge opening exhibitions, in many cases even calling these exhibitions a “party,” but without the usual party accoutrements.

  They are more like Mennonite picnics.

-Cheese is too expensive, so they opt for pretzel sticks.

-They may offer wine, but if they do, there will no food, not even a potato chip. The new Spartan philosophy says you can’t have both.

– So where’s the party? There is no party.

  The Philadelphia Sketch Club at 235 S. Camac also had Sunday afternoon opening exhibitions that included a zany variety of food and drink offerings. Like the Plastic Club, the Sketch Club was always consistent in its food and drink offerings until there was a change. Needless to say, the Sunday crowds now at both Camac institutions are much smaller. If the new boards of these two iconic Philadelphia institutions wanted a more Spartan environment, they certainly got it.

  Theater press receptions have remained largely intact, although financial difficulties have impacted the scope of receptions offered by the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). In years past PTC receptions were lavish banquets and the talk of the town. Today they are Salvation Army-thin by comparison. Throughout the years, the Wilma Theater has remained amazingly constant in its press reception offerings, as has the Arden and Lantern Theatre. In many instances, smaller and newer theaters like the two theaters at the Drake Towers provide some of the best theater and receptions in the city.

  There have been cutbacks at this year’s Arts Unleashed, the University of the Art’s annual fundraiser for student scholarships. Traditionally press was always permitted to invite a guest to this mega event, but that has changed under a new administration. The new Spartan arrangement even called for tighter security measures to clamp down on student party crashers. In years past, serious party crashers could wait until Art Unleashed was almost over and then enter the building and join the party, but this year gaining admission was more like going through airport security than crossing semi-open borders. Many of the city’s infamous party crashers were missing from this year’s Arts Unleashed, thanks to tightened security.

  What all of these art galleries and massive public fundraising events like Arts Unleashed that have cut back have in common is this: they are now being run by people in their late twenties or thirties. One could perhaps draw some interesting conclusions here.

  The Fabric Workshop is an iconic city institution that garners an intense loyalty throughout the city. Because it’s blessed with money and prestige, you’d think that opening receptions there would be occasions to remember. Well, they used to be occasions to remember, but all too often success can spoil. These days a Fabric Workshop opening reception is often a non-reception.

  The two art galleries that still offer art patrons decent or ample reception fare are the CFEVA at the Barclay, 237 S. 18th Street, Suite 3A, and the E-Moderne Gallerie at 2nd and Arch Streets. With their great opening receptions that usually feature great art, these two galleries are to be commended because they have not gone the way of the Plastic Club.   

  I get press releases on a weekly basis from PR firms publicizing music, jazz and SugarHouse Casino events. SugarHouse Casino press events are rarely noteworthy. There might be a cash bar and some free pretzel sticks, but mostly what they offer are speeches, ribbon cuttings and a few words spoken by a “celebrity.” And then it’s over.  Not even a free cup of coffee. You’d think that this huge money palace on the Delaware would be far more generous when it comes to things like this.

  SugarHouse is cheap.

  Recently I went to a great event with a fellow writer, and afterwards we headed off to the much talked about after-party.

  After-parties are usually bad if the main party has been spectacular. This after-party was held at Voyeur, a Center City after-hours gay club where a glass of red wine goes for $10. There was no food at this after-party, but you did get a wristband which enabled you to avoid paying the cover charge to get into the place. The experience was a total headache as the brassy chaotic and pounding, very monochromic music suggested that the only way to deal with the place was by taking some kind of drug.

  A better way to describe this so-called ‘after-party’ would be something along these lines: “If you want to hang out later at Voyeur, then join us, but please bring your own party supplies.”

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