The ROM’s new Friday night party series is a perfectly-curated push to get younger crowds into the patronage groove.
Last weekend, the Royal Ontario Museum launched Friday Night Live, a weekly themed art/music/food series that hopes to connect younger patrons with the city’s cultural corners. While the ROM is undoubtedly a hub for child-centric activities and artifacts (the museum’s Sleepovers and family-friendly weekend programming have each become widely successful), FNL is geared to the 19-plus set. Over the next 10 weeks, the series will host a variety of Toronto institutions—from Hot Docs to the Toronto Fashion Incubator—to mount a collection of distinct, one-night-only attractions that blend the art of being merry (read: partying) with demographic-specific entertainment.
This, of course, means that new options will ensure each instalment attracts a new audience. And the ROM isn’t shy about what it’s doing. Until last October, the museum was the most expensive of its kind in Canada, and thus responded to economy-driven attendance dips by slashing entrance prices by 33 per cent, from $24 to $15. Friday Night Live, then, follows this new budget-conscious attitude with admission set at $9 ($8 for students, free for members), offering guests a chance to enjoy all levels of the museum (from 6 to 11 p.m.) over music, food, and drink in an adults-only environment. It’s affordable—and that’s important. The ROM is also taking cues from what similar institutions worldwide have been doing to remain relevant and in business.
“A number of museums in different parts of the world have been experimenting with evening programming, and we thought it would be great to try something out at the ROM,” explained director and CEO Janet Carding. (Think of PS1 at MoMA, which runs a similar program and summertime jam sessions.) “At a time when we’re doing things for families on the weekends, we thought, ‘Let’s do something for adults. Let’s create a really sophisticated evening.’ After work, or if you’re on your way downtown, why not come here first?” Is she suggesting a pre-drink? Not explicitly, but it’s a nudge in the right direction.
Each week, the ROM will transform to reflect a different FNL theme (for last Friday’s premiere, the building was eco-drenched: a glowing Earth globe was hung like a chandelier in the foyer, with a projection of “twinkling stars” against it). And there are special features, like theatre lectures, and galleries implanted with facilitators prepped to discuss and dissertate.
Local artisanal food vendors will also appear each week, pop-up style. That means food comes from within 100 miles (a.k.a. to reflect a low-carb(on) diet). The showstopper is, duh, Fidel Gastro’s pulled-pork Cubano sandwich, followed closely by c5 noodles in take-out containers crafted by celeb chef Corbin Tomaszeski. The only downside is that currency is ROM Bucks ($1 for $1), and the number of places to buy Bucks outweigh the bars. (You quickly learn to manoeuvre those Bucks carefully to get the most buzz for, well, your buck.)
The second floor is transformed into “Dino Lounge,” where a rotating list of DJs will perform. It’s the heart of the operation. The crowd, aged 24-40, is a mix of Trinity Bellwoods and Brassaii, whatever that might mean to you. Some arrive in semi-formal dress, or strapless numbers—you’d think it was an actual gala. (But then again, they could actually be going to Brassaii after.) There are guys holding hands, and guys on the prowl doing their best Miami Vice. (Too bad there’s no one here to pick up, even if all the horns and tusks act as some sort of weird aphrodisiac.) There’s a girl in her Toms shoes, another friend of mine brought a dinosaur-print clutch. There are PR girls, magazine editors, photographers, DJs, blue collars, white collars, no collars. For every dude in a suit who’s confused by people not handing out their business cards, there’s a plaid shirt in a band with a backpack; for every girl with an ombré cut and a glowing Cambridge satchel, there’s one with half her hair shaved off. For every hipster, there’s a yupster. It’s prime Instagram territory. It’s a tweetgasm, spurred on by the connective camaraderie of the #FNLROM hashtag. It’s also proof that if you offer alcohol at anything, the people will come and stay and enjoy. (Imagine how “Cast a vote, get a beer” could transform our electoral process.)
This all culminates into exactly what the ROM needs/wants/could use more of: promotion and exposure, especially to the young and ennui-ridden. While many might think of the ROM as the quintessential Society Page-setting, it hardly feels like that here. With affordability its mission (nothing over six ROM Bucks), FNL isn’t meant to exclude, or to nurture that heinous young professional nouveau-riche mentality. It’s not membership-based, no affiliations are required; it’s accessible in ways other functions here may not be. (For last month’s ROM PROM, for example, tickets started at $150 for the party portion of the evening and ran as high as $300 for a non-member VIP experience package.)
But getting people to care about the curated arts is a running theme across the social stratums. Tomorrow night, the uptown ladies behind The Society Toronto are hosting The Urban Symphony, bringing its members a performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in a loft in the Distillery District. “Sometimes tradition is best savoured with a twist,” reads a quote in the invite. It’s that tenet that will ensure the future of these institutions. Last October, the Canadian Opera Company hosted the Operanation gala, giving top billing to Rufus Wainwright and a special performance by Austra with company sopranos. And, like the ROM, it all serves a very specific purpose: to get people into these places by any means necessary, with any and every hook of cultural cachet available.
“We thought by doing something on Friday evenings, when younger adults want to go out and enjoy themselves, that would be a way of reaching a younger market. And tonight is a great example, we’re doing really well,” says Carding. She’s right: the first FNL attracted an estimated 1,300 patrons. This may help boost the museum’s attendance number, which currently sits at just over 900,000 visitors a year, well past the million mark in 2012.
On June 22, the 10-week experiment concludes with the unveiling of “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana,” the museum’s newest exhibit and the first curated by its in-house paleontologists in over a decade. “We’re going to have the biggest dinosaur we’ve ever displayed in the ROM in the entrance hall called a Futalognkosaurus,” says Carding, with the same enthusiasm she must use to win over parents. To celebrate, the culinary team is also producing a special foot-long hot dog named after the pre-historic Argentinean beast.
And hey, FNL (and that hot dog) still beats after-work Netflixing (unless you’re watching newly-added re-runs of The Nanny) or still bloody waiting in line for tacos at Grand Electric. “You should walk through the bat cave drunk,” some guy says to me. Maybe next week.
This week’s Friday Night Live: Movies features a sampling of this year’s festival films curated by Hot Docs Film Festival. See the complete Friday Night Live line-up here.