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Museum after-hours events draw crowds with music, drinks and, yes, art

Crowds flocked to the National Gallery of Art's landmark East Building for National Gallery Nights “Homecoming” on Sept. 8. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

On a recent Thursday night in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, I watched from a railing at the edge of the mezzanine level as crowds on the floors beneath flocked between exhibits and bars and perched with drinks at colorfully lit tables. Patrons collected sketch pads from museum staff and set about creating gesture drawings of two elegantly dressed models, not far from where DJ Heat had coaxed lines of dancers into enthusiastically doing the wobble. In the galleries, groups posed for selfies next to paintings by Wayne Thiebaud and Amy Sherald, while 20-somethings wandered through the crowd, phones held high in their extended arms, capturing the scene for TikTok.

Where did all these people come from?

After-hours parties began returning to Washington museums in the spring, once again drawing locals with a mix of culture and mingling, drinks and hands-on activities. But in recent weeks, interest has exploded. The Phillips Collection’s Phillips After 5 and National Gallery Nights sold out of tickets for their September dates, as did some of the Library of Congress’s weekly Live! at the Library events, such as one featuring a conversation with author Ian McEwan.

More than 3,300 people passed through the National Gallery on Sept. 8, which Sherri Williams, the manager of community programs, says is “on par with our highest attendance ever” — around 800 to 1,000 more people than the pre-pandemic average. And while passes are free, letting patrons reserve them without fear of commitment, “more people are showing up, redeeming their pass,” Williams says. The attrition rate was about 35 percent in September, below what organizers would usually expect for a free event. Also surprising: The first wave of free tickets was snatched up in less than three minutes, faster than some of this summer’s popular Jazz in the Garden events.

Museum after-hours parties have been part of D.C.’s cultural fabric since the mid- to late 2000s, when events like Hirshhorn After Hours and Phillips After 5 became cultural phenomena, drawing crowds very different from the ones that visited during the day. “Looking at the 2,800 partygoers, it was hard to imagine that a single, good-looking, under-30 District resident was left beyond the museum’s plaza walls,” wrote a Post reporter when electronic artist Dan Deacon headlined a raucous event at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2008.

But large crowds and cool vibes (and funds raised by alcohol and ticket sales) aren’t the only reason museums are glad to host these events. The Library of Congress conceived the weekly Live! at the Library series as a way to engage local residents, explains Katie Klenkel, the library’s chief of visitor engagement. The library is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and “we were just missing out on a huge part of our audiences who worked during the day Monday through Friday and just didn’t have a chance to come see our great exhibits or experience what we have to offer,” Klenkel says.

Keith Costas, the Phillips Collection’s director of special events, was part of the group that helped create Phillips After 5 as a weekly, and then monthly, event back in the summer of 2008. To date, the gallery — the first museum of modern art in the U.S. — has hosted, by Costas’s count, 155 After 5s. “Everyone has always said to me, ‘Keith, you’re just throwing a party.’ I said, ‘Well, no, that’s not the case.’ You know, my purpose is really just to bring people in, to get them to learn about the collection, our special exhibitions, and to walk away having an enriched cultural experience.” Yes, he says, there will always be people “having a glass of wine, listening to music, engaging, conversing with people, you know, going on a date.” But for the staff who created and continue to plan the event, he says, “it was always about the art and making it a cultural and learning experience.”

Beyond a good time, these after-hours events are about inviting Washingtonians to think of art as part of their lives — an after-work social experience as natural as going to happy hour or rounding up friends to catch up over dinner. And if you learn something about Lou Stovall’s museum workshop, or decide to come back another day to continue gazing at modern art, so much the better.

Phillips After 5 at the Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection began in Duncan Phillips’s home, and even though the building has been extended and modernized numerous times, Phillips After 5 still gives off house-party vibes. One minute, you’re upstairs in an exhibition space, browsing the brightly colored silk-screen prints in “Lou Stovall: The Museum Workshop,” listening to a spotlight tour where guest curator Will Stovall is delving into the history of the posters his father created for concerts at Bohemian Caverns, his more activist work and the prints made for Washington Color School pioneers such as Gene Davis.

Then you head down the curvaceous spiral staircase to the lobby. There’s a beer tasting with D.C.’s own Soul Mega happening in the gift shop. Go through a set of doors and you’re out in the courtyard, where hands are in the air and bodies are bouncing while local jazz-meets-go-go stars the JoGo Project cover UCB’s “Sexy Lady.” Do the people singing along with the chorus notice the site-specific Ellsworth Kelly sculpture behind the band? Maybe, maybe not.

Groove for a bit, then wander back inside and head downstairs, where a silk-screen demonstration is teaching visitors the basic principles of Stovall’s art and they’re making a tote bag to take home. And did I mention that Ben’s Chili Bowl is serving half-smokes?

D.C. art, D.C. music, D.C. food and a hands-on experience that brings it back to the art: That kind of synergy is what Nehemiah Dixon III, the Phillips’s senior director of community engagement, is looking for when Phillips After 5 is in the planning stages. “I think everything paired well,” he says after the “We’re Back! Let’s Go-Go” event in early September. “You can tell the excitement, the buzz of people being back in the museum at that capacity.”

The nature of the Phillips’s exhibitions is something that Dixon relishes: “We’re in a unique place where our walls change fairly consistently,” he says. “And with each new exhibition, with each new show, there’s a new opportunity to sort of experiment and play” with the themes of After 5. Next month, though, the focus is on the most iconic painting in the collection: Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”

The Phillips draws a slightly older crowd than the National Gallery and some Smithsonian events — I’m willing to bet the $20 ticket price has something to do with the demographics — and guests seem fairly split between those who are focused on the music and the art. But that’s fine with Dixon. “Whether it’s a painting on the wall or a program that you’re attending, our goal is always, you know, let’s create these pockets of joy for our community.”

When: The first Thursday of the month from 5 to 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $20, from phillipscollection.org.

Next up: “Oktoberfest” on Oct. 6, featuring tours and talks focused on Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and the opportunity to take a photo in a 3D version of the painting; jazz from the Carr/Keys quintet; hard cider from Capitol Cider House and German Oktoberfest beers. 1600 21st Street NW.

Live! at the Library at the Library of Congress

If some other after-hours events come across as eager to party, the Library of Congress is the refined older relative, befitting its setting in the grand marble building across the street from the Capitol. Since its first event in May, Live! at the Library has allowed visitors to gawk at the magnificent dome and sculptures in the historic Reading Room, which is surely one of the most beautiful indoor spaces in D.C. Events have given visitors a chance to see Abraham Lincoln’s life mask, celebrate Juneteenth with the Gullah band Ranky Tanky and ask Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle about the books that spurred his love of reading, as well as to explore ongoing exhibits. The series attracts locals interested in the subject of the week, but also a Hill crowd and, given the location, plenty of tourists.

The lack of access to exhibits for locals working 9-to-5 jobs had been part of the inspiration for the series, but Katie Klenkel, the chief of visitor engagement, explains that there was also a desire to consolidate the library’s calendar. Between author talks, film screenings, concerts, lectures and other events, “we do so many programs at the library on so many different disparate topics” that sometimes potential audience members didn’t know that something they’d be interested in was happening. “And so we were trying to create a through line for people so they could anticipate that kind of cultural programming on a specific date, specific time, every Thursday,” Klenkel says. “It makes it easier than having things on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday evenings.”

So after beloved radio producers and podcasters the Kitchen Sisters donated their entire archive to the library’s American Folklife Center, it was a natural fit to have them as guests at Live! at the Library in mid-September, interviewed by Academy Award winner Frances McDormand. Ditto author Ian McEwan, who discussed his latest novel, “Lessons,” on Sept. 22, or journalist James Kirchick, who celebrated Pride Month by talking about his book “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington” while the library displayed items from its collection that Kirchick used in his research.

But there’s an element of surprise, too, when the library can pull out that Lincoln life mask, show off a selection of items from the Harry Houdini collection or display vintage Star Wars trading cards that maybe aren’t the first thing someone thinks of when they hear “Library of Congress.” (Who knew about the library’s vast flute vault before Librarian Carla Hayden tweeted at Lizzo?)

If you visit Live! at the Library most weeks, you’ll find exhibits open and docents available to talk about the building or special displays, a bar with wine and local craft beer, and live music. A reading room that visitors can’t usually see might be open, but there won’t be an event like the Kitchen Sisters every Thursday. “What we’re trying to focus on right now is having a big tent-pole event once a month with something very splashy and exciting,” Klenkel says, and letting the library, and its vast collections, shine the rest of the time.

When: Every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m.

Tickets: Free timed entry passes available 30 days in advance from loc.gov/live. Additional passes released at 9 a.m. on the day of the event.

Next up: “Opening the Case: The Giant Bible of Mainz” on Oct. 6, with a chance to get up close and personal with the illuminated German manuscript, created in 1452 and 1453, with specialists from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Other medieval manuscripts will also be on display. Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE.

National Gallery Nights at the National Gallery of Art

“I describe [National Gallery Nights] as a choose-your-own-adventure evening in the museum, where we give you lots of options and you could just pick and choose how you want to spend your time with us,” explains Sherri Williams, the museum’s manager of community programs. “If it’s the whole three hours, if it’s an hour, there’s something for you to do.”

So that “Homecoming” after-hours program earlier this month, the first in the landmark East Building since 2019, was loaded with opportunities that guests could explore in any order. A map guided them to nine locations offering 10-minute pop-up talks on such topics as “Hahn,” the giant blue rooster on the rooftop terrace, and the James McNeill Whistler exhibit “The Woman in White.” There was trivia about twins, in honor of the exhibition “The Double”; live music; an installation featuring two people walking a path on the floor while wearing giant, body-covering mirrors; and, of course, multiple bars.

Williams, the primary programmer of National Gallery Nights, doesn’t feel bound by the newest exhibits when she’s planning the next happening. “We try to be timely and take advantage of the exhibitions if we can,” she says, but “they are not the motivators for a program for a National Gallery Night.” Instead, “the theme really matters,” with the art experience shaped around that. In May, for example, there was a seasonally appropriate “Prom” theme, with a band and DJ, prom photos, a crown crafting station, and a self-guided tour of “regal and resplendent” works of art. And yes, many attendees showed up in party dresses. Next month’s “Trick or Treat” will include gallery talks and music, but also a screening of “Gremlins” in the auditorium, scored by the Shaolin Jazz crew, and organizers suggest guests wear “art-inspired” costumes.

One of the key things, Williams says, is reaching out to attendees while they’re enjoying themselves at the event and telling them, “ ‘If you’re interested in National Gallery Nights, you might also be interested in this film series,’ just to show them all that the museum has to offer and to make them feel comfortable, so they don’t feel as if, you know, there’s only one right way to attend and to be a visitor at the National Gallery of Art.”

When: The second Thursday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m., through November.

Tickets: Free passes available one week in advance, beginning at noon, at nga.gov. (For the Oct. 13 event, for example, you should be online at 11:59 a.m. on Oct. 6.) More tickets are released at 10 a.m. on the morning of the event, and some additional tickets are available at the door, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Next up: “Trick or Treat” on Oct. 13, with “spooky” gallery talks, a screening of “Gremlins” scored by Shaolin Jazz, pop-up performances and DJ RBI. East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW.

Smithsonian Institution

After-hours events at Smithsonian museums have their own individual vibes, whether that’s electronic musician Dan Deacon leading a conga line of revelers through the Hirshhorn’s plaza at a legendary 2008 concert or groups gossiping around a table while constructing felted birds or working on a macramé project during the quarterly Handi-Hour happy hour at the Renwick Gallery. The thing to remember, though, is that schedules vary by location, creating a patchwork of events that come and go. The National Museum of Asian Art held a series of indoor and outdoor events dubbed “Afterhours @ NMAA” over the summer, with DJs, dance performances, gallery talks and food from local restaurants, but those are on hold. Handi-Hour is held once per quarter, with the next edition in February. (Guests will be able to make “Valentine’s-related crafts,” in addition to a paper wall hanging.)

Since 2015, the National Museum of American History has marked the end of its Smithsonian Food History Weekend with “Last Call,” an event dedicated to the past, present and future of beer. The centerpiece is a moderated discussion among a panel of beer experts, which has included such luminaries as Kim Jordan and Dick Cantwell, the co-founders of New Belgium and Elysian, respectively (2015); Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman (2019); and Highland Brewing Co. founder Oscar Wong (2017). While recent years have also seen four or five breweries from across the country pouring beers for attendees to sample, “we are always proud to note that it is an event about beer history,” says Theresa McCulla, the curator of the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative. “This is not just a beer tasting. It’s not just a happy hour.”

This year’s theme, “¡Salud! to American Latinos in Beer,” draws inspiration from the new Molina Family Latino Gallery at the museum and highlights four Latino-owned breweries, from San Diego to New York City. McCulla says “all four of the brewers are talking about how they’re brewing, and how the ingredients they pick are inspired by their Latin roots, dishes or flavors, or experiences” that they grew up with: Mujeres Brew House, from San Diego, makes Hola Saladito!, inspired by a favorite childhood Mexican snack with dried, salted plums; Dyckman Beer Co. draws on owner Juan Camilo’s Dominican heritage for Highbridge Summer Ale, made with chinola, or passion fruit.

Visitors can also tour exhibits and explore rarely seen beer-related objects from the museum’s collection, such as vintage tap handles and a colorimeter, a 19th-century brewer’s gadget that showed whether a beer was the right shade. McCulla also plans to show some of the latest acquisitions, which “preserve the history of breweries and their experiences of the pandemic, and their responses to things like the Black Lives Matter movement.”

When: Events vary by museum.

Next up: “+234 Connect” at the National Museum of African Art. Part of the museum’s Community Day, this celebration features the Afrochique dance team; live music from Eme & Heteru and the Cavemen; food trucks; and head-wrapping workshops. (Oct. 1. Concert from 7 to 11 p.m. 950 Independence Ave. SW. africa.si.edu. Free.)

A Speakeasy Evening” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Inspired by the Speakeasy clubs of the Harlem Renaissance,” this evening for the LGBTQ community includes music, comedy, games, art and a discussion about “Ballroom and Beyond,” as well as food and drinks. A discussion for ages 13 to 24 precedes the main program. (Oct. 14 from 7:30 to 10:45 p.m. 1400 Constitution Ave. NW. nmaahc.si.edu. Free; registration required.)

Last Call: ¡Salud! to American Latinos in Beer” at the National Museum of American History. Part of the annual Smithsonian Food History Weekend, this event features a discussion with American Latinos who work in the craft beer industry and a tasting of eight of their beers, as well as exhibit tours. (Oct. 14 from 7 to 9 p.m. Constitution Avenue NW between 12th and 14th streets. americanhistory.si.edu. $40; includes beer tastings and light snacks.)

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