January 16, 2013

Full Spectrum Disco

The GMOA Gets Funky

Photo Credit: Michael Lachowski

Dan Donahue and Chris Bilheimer

For some people, including this writer, the suggestion of “a fun time at a museum” sounds like “a fun time at a mausoleum”—walking around airy rooms looking at ornate but lifeless objects. People who’d rather spend an afternoon at a museum than a ballpark are the same people who’d rather (or say they’d rather) listen to NPR than rock and roll, or watch nature specials instead of "Hawaii Five-0." And one imagines—because you certainly wouldn’t go—that a museum reception would be a quiet, stuffy affair with classical music, wine and cheese, and a handful of established society people. Until you find out that Michael Lachowski—local artist, musician (of Pylon fame), photographer, designer, DJ and friend of many in Athens—joined the Georgia Museum of Art's public relations team, and he had an idea.

“I said, let’s have a DJ come and play, and stay open until midnight and dance,” says Lachowski. “It was huge. We had 400 people come and stay for hours. People danced and people looked at art. And [museum employee] Betty Alice Fowler said, ‘The best part is, I hardly know anyone here.’ So, Museum Mix was the bomb. Suddenly people were having a party at the museum and seeing art.” 

So, it was only natural that when it came time to plan the Elegant Salute, the GMOA’s huge $300-per-plate fundraiser that only occurs every two years (taking place this Saturday, Jan. 19)), the museum upped the ante, creating Athens’ first white-tie event with a disco spin: a formal dinner followed by opening the doors (at a reduced $65 admission) to aspiring philanthropists for a dessert and full-spectrum disco dance party featuring a spectacular reunion of Krush Girls, Athens’ favorite DJ duo.

“There’s certainly more than a nod to Truman Capote and his famous black and white ball,” says Betsy Dorminey, chair (with co-chair Paige Carmichael) of the 13th Elegant Salute, dubbed ESXIII:B>W. “Everyone is encouraged to wear black or white formal attire, and there’s lots of room for creativity there. We’ve called ours ‘black into white’ to reflect that the full spectrum of color is contained between those two poles. And I really want the dance party to reflect the full spectrum of people in Athens. White and black and gay and straight and old and young and rich and not-rich. Everyone’s welcome, everyone can participate, the more the merrier, and we all have more fun that way because everybody brings something wonderful.”

The museum brought something wonderful by asking Daniel Donahue, who now lives in Wisconsin, and Chris Bilheimer, now in Texas, to return to Athens for a Krush Girls reunion for the museum—minus their signature orange jumpsuits. According to Donahue, their response was “an instant 'yes.'” 

“You can’t have 'party' without 'art.' It’s impossible, even if you want to try and 'par-tay,'” says Donahue, in his full-on DJ rhythm. “There is still the art part, and we, the Krush Girls, have always supported the art of partying. Bringing our party to the heart of art is an honor. Besides it being an honor, it’s also our duty to move the booty, so we are going to be as classy as we can. I think the white ties are a step up from orange jumpsuits. I think we look good in tails; they shake when we dance, and I like it.” 

“I have always been a fan of both high and low art,” concurs Bilheimer, “and I think that having us perform at the GMOA is an awesome mix of the two.”

Of course, art is part of the event, and inspiring the evening’s disco theme is 1970s artist De Wain Valentine, whose traveling exhibit "Human Scale" leaves the museum the following week. Even though the lure of the disco party is dancing and fun, the museum hopes attendees will wander through different exhibits and discover what the museum really offers, what you experience when seeing the pieces in person.

Initially, the De Wain Valentine exhibit was described with excitement as a display of acrylic sculpture, they lost me at “acrylic.” Seriously? Plastic? But seeing the pieces in person, one understands the enthusiasm. Huge discs of different colored acrylic, so translucent and hypnotic, one feels like he/she could fall into them as if they were calming pools of liquid, or a portal to another world. The museum expert used words like “minimalism” and “restraint,” but the sculptures are so cool, and they're in Athens. How did the museum do that?

“I’ve only worked here nine months, and I have to admit that learning about the nature of a museum, what it’s about, and that it differs from just seeing a cool art show in a gallery, it is a different animal,” says Lachowski. “It’s deeper. It’s more carefully researched and considered. It’s put together with a lot more time and effort, and money, loans and insurance policies. Lots of things go into bringing an exhibition together and presenting it.”

In addition to the exhibits, the museum also hosts a number of free events that are open to the public, including 90 Carlton (named for the museum’s street address), its quarterly reception that combines special tours and workshop activities with food and beer, and the Museum Mix, a dance party that occurs three times a year. There are also several free educational events for kids, including the monthly Family Day (where kids of all ages are shown art and make their own art), fifth grade tours (where the museum busses the kids in from their schools), outreach programs and Teen Studio.

“Teen Studio is limited to 20 teens,” explains Lachowski. “We provide all the materials. They come in and look at an exhibition with a local artist, and then that artist will take them into a room and guide them in an art-making activity. And they have pizza,” he adds with a smile. “It’s like this place gives away everything.”

And that takes money, which explains the museum’s enthusiasm for grooming new philanthropists.

“GMOA is the state’s art museum, not just UGA’s, and it’s for everybody. There’s no admission charged,” says Dorminey. “Philanthropy isn’t just for rich people any more than the museum is. There are going to be some fantastic shows at GMOA in the coming year: treasures from Catherine the Great and a knock-out couture retrospective, to mention just two. So, make a new year’s resolution to support the arts in your community, and start by celebrating the museum at ESXIII.”

It seems the Krush Girls would agree.

“Michael has always elevated dance parties in this town, and there would be no Krush Girls without him,” says Donahue. “Come celebrate beauty, celebrate movement, celebrate art, but come on, y’all, let’s celebrate being alive and let’s all do it together.”

Sounds like a fun time at a museum.

ESXIII:B>W Full Spectrum Disco takes place at the Georgia Museum of Art Saturday Jan. 19 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $65 and will be available until noon Friday, Jan. 18. Contact Sarah Mae George at GMOA, 706-543-GMOA (4662) for more information.