Anchorage Museum Stays Up Late to Reach New Members

A couple takes in Sydney Laurence's "Mt. McKinley" on Friday night in the Gallery of the Far North. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.
A couple takes in Sydney Laurence’s “Mt. McKinley” on Friday night in the Gallery of the Far North. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

As cultural institutions across the country struggle to stay relevant in a changing financial landscape, many are testing new ways to raise funds and expand membership.  And the Anchorage Museum is trying to recruit the next wave of museum buffs in some unconventional ways.

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In a brightly lit gallery, Kim Kloecker stood in front of a giant framed painting of Denali. She wasn’t there just to enjoy the picture: she was marrying it.

“Do you Kim take this painting to love it, comfort it, honor it and keep it in health and in sickness, forsaking all others, be faithful to it, as long as you both shall exist?” asked Rayette Sterling, who presided over more than 20 such ceremonies during Friday’s second annual Lights Out!, described as a “late night creative blow-out.”

“I do,” Kloecker replied ahead of a round of applause.

Sterling, a volunteer, was beaming, hopeful that the faux marriages to sculptures and canvases could turn party-goers into card-carrying museum members.

Lights Out! opened up permanent galleries as well as visiting exhibits like the popular "Brick by Brick" on the Museum's third floor. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.
Lights Out! opened up permanent galleries as well as visiting exhibits like the popular “Brick by Brick” on the Museum’s third floor. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

“The art is so important and the idea that people can actually kind of have a silly symbol of something they love, and to bring that art into their heart and into their lives is just sort of special and fun,” Sterling explained.

That was certainly true for Kloecker, the bride, who renewed her museum membership that night shortly before exchanging vows with the 13-foot wide Sydney Lawrence landscape. The piece is her favorite in the museum’s permanent collection.

“It’s not often that you see canvases of this size, and so you’re drawn into the picture, it’s like you’re part of it rather than observing art,” Kloecker said, looking over her shoulder at the splashes of purple, blue and gray. “I’m a traditionalist at heart, and in the Anchorage museum it’s doesn’t get any more traditional than Sydney Lawrence.”

Kloecker herself is closer to the museum’s traditional target for fundraising: she has a stable career, disposable income, and is enthusiastic about  familiar models of fine arts, like oil-on-canvas landscapes in a curated gallery.

By contrast, 20-something Tamra Cornfield is closer to who the Lights Out! event aims to pull in.

“There’s older people,” Cornfield said on a balcony overlooking the dance floor, “but there’s also [people] all the way down to 21, who I wouldn’t normally think would want to go to the museum on a Friday night. But everyone’s here, and there’s dancing, upstairs a band, and then this DJ’s killing it.”

The dance floor was crowded until the event ended at midnight. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA
The dance floor was crowded until the event ended at midnight. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA

Nearby was a photo-booth between art installations for party-goers to take pictures, and maybe post them to social media. Tickets for Lights Out! were $30 at the door, but Cornfield says the open access to galleries, music, and such an excited crowd made the price worth it.

“This is really fun, so I would pay to come back,” said Cornfield. “And I’d bring friends.

That’s exactly what Lindsay Garrod wants to hear. She works on visitor engagement for the Museum, and came up with a lot of the ideas spread across all four floors of the building. Including a live, loud concert by The Sweeteners, a rock band on the fourth floor Chugach Gallery.

Rock bands, DJ’s, and novelty weddings are a far cry from the formal affairs people think of when it comes to museum fundraising parties–if they think parties at all. And that’s exactly what Garrod is going for.

“I think one of the things that we’re really hoping to do is find different ways to engage people that might not necessarily think of themselves as museum people,” Gararod said in her office, away from most of the night’s hubbub. “And I think we’re trying to change people’s ideas of what goes on here.”

The Sweeteners played, while on the sides of the gallery attendees competed in Wii videogame tournaments. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.
The Sweeteners played, while on the sides of the gallery attendees competed in Wii videogame tournaments. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

That doesn’t mean the museum can afford, or has an interest, in moving away from the wealthy individual and corporation donations that make up the lion’s share of it’s funding base. But testing unconventional programming like nimble pop-up exhibits, and late-night parties that bring new patrons into the galleries is an effort to keep the museum relevant and truly contemporary.

Gain that support, Garrod believes, and dollars will follow.