The Paintings Have Been Drinking (Not Me)

Travel back with me, if you will for just a moment, to those happy, halcyon days of the year 2001. Oh, what a time to be a young American artist it was!

The world waited breathlessly for the final bombshell in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster film cycle to drop (spoiler: Gary Gilmore did it!), and your hipper, richer, better-looking friends were cashing in their trust funds and moving en masse to some sort of Italian-speaking suburb of Manhattan called Williamsburg. Fashionable young men were rapidly perfecting the art of ironic facial hair, and their female counterparts had finally harnessed the unstoppable power of the knee-high boots/vintage skirt/wrinkled Mogwai t-shirt combination.

Oh, what a time to be a young American artist it was!

Amidst all of this excitement and bustle, your humble correspondent was an apple-cheeked 21-year old BFA candidate in Louisville, Kentucky, learning the twins arts of oil painting and quoting Foucault in the course of casual conversation (the latter being a skill set I still have yet to master). Like the rest of my newly-legal art school peers, I typically spent one or two Friday nights a month out viewing challenging video installations and half-baked performance art in the upstairs loft of a decrepit Clay Street warehouse or a little Frankfort Avenue storefront (the former being a favorite target of the Louisville Metro Police Department for repeatedly violating local noise ordinances).

What was it that brought me out to those openings, weekend after weekend? Was it the thrill of newness? The excitement of being part of a community? The chance to hobnob with successful young emerging artists? The opportunity to meet prominent local gallery owners eager to display my crappy paintings of cigarette butts?

Well, sort of. But not entirely. Truthfully, I was there mostly because these spaces usually served free Falls City Beer at their openings. I expect many of my peers were also there for the same reason.

Now of course this isn’t the only reason I went to art openings in college. I was there to see some art, too. But if you’ve been involved in the art world in any capacity, you know this scenario well. It’s not Louisville, but maybe it’s Northeast Minneapolis, maybe it’s Lowertown St. Paul, maybe it’s Chelsea, maybe it’s whatever the arts quarter of your college town was called; but wherever it is, you know it.

This is one of the first magical lessons of college: dude, they totally have free beer at art openings.

If it’s not free beer, it’s free wine. And if you’re lucky, it’s free liquor. If it’s not free, it’s cheap. And if it’s not cheap, your friend working the bar will slip you a cup anyway. The point is, if you have an artsy bent and like to have a few drinks in you, there’s no better place to be than an opening on a Friday night. Openings and alcohol go hand-in-hand, like Gilbert and George, like Andy and Edie, like Jeff Koons and the feeling of wanting to punch Jeff Koons in the face.

I began thinking about this after some rumblings in a few art blogs last month following the arrest of New York gallery owner Ruth Kalb during an opening at her gallery in the East Hamptons. The charge was violating liquor laws and entertaining without a license. Normally the goings-on of the Long Island art world have little interest to me personally, but this is really a universal theme. How many art openings have I been to that have been shut down by the cops for this very reason? Not a lot, but certainly a notable handful.

Moreover, how many openings have I been to where someone got a little too drunk on the house wine and wanted to start a fight outside about the relative merits of shooting digital vs. Super-8? Or where the gallery owners had to kick someone out for sloshing their drinks a little too close to the artwork? Or where the aftermath of the night’s festivities was a catastrophic scene of discarded beer bottles, crumpled plastic cups and sticky spots on the floor? More than a few.

Then again, there have been the many times when I’ve thanked the booze-soaked ghost of Jackson Pollock that I had a little cup of wine to look at the art with. Openings can be awkward, stifling affairs. People go to openings to see art, sure, but they also go for a multitude of non-art related reasons.

People go to openings to see who else will be there. People are there to impress their friends and confound their rivals.

People are clustered in unnatural little conversational groups – you’re spending a half-hour talking to that sculptor whose name you never remember, an adjunct professor you once had, your younger brother’s fiancĂ©e and that girl that works at the co-op, all at the same time. None of them have met each other. They all expect introductions.

People are nervous. People want to look good because they may be photographed by The Minneapoline and get their pictures on the Internet. People want to look good because their ex-girlfriends will be there with their new, hotter boyfriends.

Galleries can be stuffy and overheated in the summer and drafty in the winter, and a lot of the time it’s impossible to even see the art, much less form a coherent opinion about it because people are so crowded around it. If there is music, the music is loud and you have to shout over it. Even worse, the music may quite possibly be "experimental" in nature.

You often have to seem smarter and/or cleverer than you may actually be.

Needless to say, a little beer or wine in this context can be a godsend.

It gives you something to look busy with if you’re by yourself, and gives you a little bit of impetus to talk to people with whom you might not otherwise think of much to talk about. It’s a scientifically-established principle that alcohol makes you smarter, or barring that, at least more confident about seeming smarter. Standing in front of a canvas with a little cup of wine in your hand feels right. It feels natural.

From the gallery’s perspective, it can be helpful, too. It draws people in, for one. Healthy attendance numbers look good on those grant applications. If it’s a commercial gallery, a little libation gets people in the mood to buy. If the alcohol is donated, the gallery can even cover some additional costs in the process. No huge profit margins, obviously, but enough to make it worthwhile.

I talked to the directors of a few Minneapolis galleries to get their take on the subject. Was serving alcohol at openings worth it? The general consensus, of course, was a qualified "yes." But within that consensus, there were a range of opinions. Everyone I spoke to wished to stay anonymous, for obvious reasons, so you’ll have to use your imaginations.

There are some legal issues involved in serving alcohol, of course. Obviously, you can’t sell it without a license. Actually, legally, you can’t really even serve it without an entertainment license (you can read all the statutes yourself to your heart’s delight here on the city’s website). What you can do, though, is suggest a donation, and so this is the way most of the gallery
owners I spoke to went about things. A lot of it really seems to be semantics – most galleries you’ll go to will have a posted sign asking for donations, and that covers some of the liability, anyway. Everyone was careful to stress that they run a clean house as far as underage boozing, outdoor drinking and slopped-out jerkiness are concerned. Young-looking types get carded, people aren’t permitted to wander around the street outside waving their beer bottles, and troublemakers get the boot. This generally keeps police and city inspectors away. As one owner pointed out, the cost of a license is a piddling little amount compared to attorney’s fees. Another even went so far as to regular hire off-duty cops to keep everything nice and legit for larger, more heavily-attended openings.

Legal issues aside, there are also the behavioral and trash disposal issues. Most owners here, as well, had specific strategies for making sure people have fun without landing everyone in the drunk tank or the Broken Bottle Fight Injuries Ward at HCMC. Openings occur for a specific and set amount of time, end before the neighbors start complaining, and filter out collectively to neighborhood bars afterwards so people have somewhere to go and finish the conversations they started. Everyone I spoke to recycles bottles and plastic.

Basically, all gallery heads reported back to me that their crowds, though they do love the beer and wine, are pretty reasonable, intelligent people that aren’t there to bankrupt the gallery, start fistfights or urinate Phillips vodka on the video art set-ups. Mostly they come to see art, meet up with friends, and generally have a good experience. The setbacks are far outweighed by the benefits. An art opening is, in the end, about the art – if it was just about boozing, all of our local gallery runners would be nightclub entrepreneurs instead. This is as it should be. Because let’s face it: Minneapolis, to her eternal credit, has much better galleries than it does nightclubs.

So enjoy your beer and/or art this weekend, and just make sure the empty bottle makes its way to the recycling bin.