After Hours at Canada's Galleries and Museums: Late-Night Art Parties

By Nancy Tousley on July 04, 2013

The Rip-Roarin' Refinery, Late-night art party, Art Gallery of Alberta, June 2013. Photo © Harvey Miedreich

The odds that a museum or art gallery might top a list of places to go for a great night out were once so heavily weighted against it that the idea was laughable. Now, even such august institutions as Toronto’s grand dame, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), are letting their hair down after dark and radically changing their image with late-night art parties. 

There is little disputing that visiting a museum at night can somehow transform the experience, if not in terms of a Hollywood fantasy. At a recent Refinery party at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) in Edmonton, partygoers strolled through the galleries looking at art, talking about what they saw, and stopping to chat as they encountered people they knew. This was clearly a place to see and be seen. The atmosphere was casual, relaxed, convivial and yet tinged with excitement. Off limits after hours on other nights, on this night the gallery was a beehive of activity. 


Interface at Refinery, Late-night art party, Art Gallery of Alberta, February 2013.  Photo © Klyment Tan

The first floor, in the lobby atrium, offered performances by artists, dancing to the throbbing music of a DJ, a cash bar and finger food. The lobbies on the gallery’s two upper exhibition floors were filled with mostly young people working away at DIY art-making stations that fit the evening’s theme. Works of art on view just for the evening adorned the lobbies, and film and video projections cast moving images throughout—even onto the swooping curves of the architectural interior. Everybody was asked to wear white. The ones who did became mobile screens, which was a nimble metaphor for the social scene. But instead of occurring on Facebook, here the socializing was face to face.

In sync with the onslaught of social media and interactive everything, public art galleries and museums are transforming themselves into social destinations with curated programs that mix food, drink, live music and entertainment with art exhibitions, artists, hands-on art projects and education. The ROM’s Friday Night Live program has been touted this way on the CityEvents blog at “Come enjoy the city’s most unlikely club scene! Friday May 3 will feature The JUNO Awards, Luminato and Ancient Mesopotamia.” Old-school museum- and gallery-goers will either smile or wince at the juxtapositions. The ROM itself beckons with a dignified come-hither line: “Be a part of history at Toronto’s unique social destination.”


Refinery late-night art party, Art Gallery of Alberta, March 2011. Photo © Rene Grosso

A young audience, the coveted 25-to-34 demographic, is accepting similar invitations from museums and art galleries across the country. The after-hours events are designed to get first-time visitors through the door, engage them and encourage them to return, with some sense of connection to art and to the art gallery or museum. The ROM’s parties run from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and are held in spring/summer and fall/winter series of seven or eight nights each. A pilot project held in Spring 2012, before the museum re-launched its Friday Night Live program last October, drew 21,000 people. Along with the relaunch, the museum initiated a new membership category, the Social Membership which, for $149, gives one adult member and one guest free admission to the museum, special exhibitions and FNLROM evenings for one year, plus the other standard benefits.

Notable late-night art parties in Canada are held from once a month to several times a year. Among them are the Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursdays (6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.), the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montréal’s Friday Nocturnes (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.), the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Fuse (8 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and the Art Gallery of Alberta's Refinery (9 p.m. to 2 a.m.). Calgary’s Glenbow Museum holds after-hours launch parties (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.) to kick off each new cycle of exhibitions, which changes three times a year.

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) has been running its Fuse series since 2005. The Art Gallery of Alberta started Refinery in 2010, not long after it shed its skin as the Edmonton Art Gallery and re-emerged as the AGA in an award-winning new building. The ROM and Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) launched their current party programs in 2012. The National Gallery of Canada is developing its own plan to host art evenings based around its temporary exhibitions and permanent collection, with the aim of having them up and running within a year. The forerunners of this relatively new phenomenon were the Singles Nights programs at institutions like the Glenbow, which started one in 1999. The new late-night party undoubtedly attracts singles, too, but—beyond increasing visitor numbers—the goals and vibe are almost entirely different. 


Life Drawing in Galleria Italia, AGO First Thursdays party, courtesy of the Art Galley of Ontario © 2013

The AGO was looking at ways to reinvigorate the gallery, when it asked its hard-to-get target audience—“young cosmopolitans and the creative industries”—why it wasn’t visiting the gallery. The staff listened to the results of visitor research, says event programmer Kelly McKinley, who oversees the First Thursdays. “The gallery was not open when they wanted to come. They perceived it as not being fun. They wanted events with high-quality content and they wanted to go with friends and to socialize with friends.”

The First Thursdays, which are selling out, are audience-development nights, McKinley says, but in terms of programming “art is first and foremost, and cocktails and socializing are secondary.” In retrospect, the initial plan seems modest. “We started out with 1,500 (as a goal at the end of the first six-months) because we thought that was a lot of people,” says McKinley. The program swelled to that many visitors in one month. Avid ticket-seekers crashed the AGO website in March, when the night was devoted to An Evening of Words and Song with Patti Smith. Attendance at the First Thursday in May, built around the exhibition, Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art—the clever slogan was “Party like it’s 1329”—was the largest yet at 2,750. McKinley says, “One of the most rewarding things is seeing people connect with art.”


Evan Penny in the Contemporary Gallery, AGO First Thursdays party, courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario © 2013

The AGA’s Refinery series, like the late-night art parties at the AGO, the ROM and the VAG, is themed to relate to current exhibitions. Each of the parties has a different artistic director, and they are held three times a year. Refinery came out of a process in which the curatorial team envisioned how visitors to the new AGA might experience the gallery and its exhibitions in new ways and connect with art differently than they had before, says Oksana Gowin, the AGA’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

The successful outcome has been a case of build it and they will come. “The audience came afterwards,” Gowin says. “The city was ready for something like this.” Each Refinery, for which 900 tickets are available, sells out in a flash. Fifty per cent of the partygoers are in the 25-to-34 demographic, with the next largest group being 35 to 44. Visitor surveys show that more than 50 per cent have visited the AGA before, and about half of them plan to visit the gallery after Refinery. They are motivated to attend by the opportunity to experience art exhibitions in a different way, and to party with their friends. Membership sales have increased as a result of priority ticketing.


Performance by Diana in the Walker Court, AGO First Thursdays party, courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario © 2013

“There is an appetite for this,” says the AGO’s McKinley. And both she and Gowin highlight the popularity of the DIY art-making stations at their late-night art parties. “We’ve tapped into something,” McKinley says. “It’s interesting that it’s the direct social and analog experience that the digital generation is coming for.”

By Nancy Tousley| July 04, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Nancy Tousley

Nancy Tousley

Nancy Tousley, winner of a 2011 Governor-General's Award in Media and Visual Arts, is a senior art writer, critic and independent curator based in Calgary.


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