Come for the drag queens, stay for the art

First Fridays in Philadelphia

3 minute read
First Friday in Old City (Photo by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia™)
First Friday in Old City (Photo by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia™)

Long ago and far away, when Old City was known as the home to indentured artists and storefront galleries, a group got together and decided to publicize themselves. In order to promote their art and attract patrons to the galleries, they dubbed the first Friday of each month as (unlike the old Catholic tradition of eucharistic adoration) a night of partying and celebration in the neighborhood. All the galleries would have receptions, and patrons were invited to spend the evening visiting each space for free. Artists not accepted into a gallery simply plied their wares on the curbs, and eventually the streets came to teem with people. Not everything bought was a masterpiece, but all things offered were in earnest and not a ploy. The promise of free wine and cheese lured patrons bent on having a good TGIF. The artwork, though, was not an afterthought but the reason for the celebration.

The success of the original Old City First Friday has led public relations people to take an original concept, promote it as their own, and market it into pabulum for the masses. According to the email I got from uwishunu, the events website for Visit Philadelpia™, First Friday in Philadelphia is now primarily for amusement. Along the way, if you want, you can bother yourself looking at art.

And leading this battle cry for bread and games is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For June’s First Friday, it offered, as part of the admission fee to the museum, a cabaret featuring none other than Philadelphia's favorite drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. Partiers, if they wish, can “at no additional charge” go on a guided tour of the museum. Nice, huh? The “tour” is optional because the idea is entertainment, and the building is a mere backdrop for burlesque acts.

Not to be outdone on this sacred art feast is the Barnes, where for $25 one can listen to songbird “Carla Cook, whose jazz sound is infused with R&B, European classical, Motown, blues, and gospel” and as an added benefit have “full access to the permanent collections, too.”

If the intent is to attract people into museums by offering them something else beside the artwork, then the very reason for that attraction belies the popularity of your offering. Supermarkets and car dealerships have been using entertainment for years to draw in customers to buy something they don’t want or need, but is that how the art establishment should view its offerings — as fish sticks or a minivan?

The lines are often arbitrarily drawn, it seems. The biggest tourist attraction in Philadelphia is the Rocky statue, but the museum resisted, kicking and scratching, when it was suggested that the statue be included in the museum's collection.

In July of this year, Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art will "give us a first look at a design that renews one of Philadelphia’s greatest landmarks." Apparently someone in the museum's PR department saw no conflict in the contradiction in renewing by redoing a classic.

Let’s see what happens. I’m putting money on Rocky going and a notice from Uwishunu about dog acts on the “new” grand staircase.

P. T. Barnum, eat your heart out.

Above right: Will Frank Gehry dislodge Rocky from the Art museum? (Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri via Wikimedia Commons.)

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