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Dinner at the museum: Real meal served on artist's fine ceramics in Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA - Five nights a week at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, 16 people sit down to dinner. But they're not at a museum cafe. They're in the exhibit space, at a long pine farmhouse table set all day long with platters, bowls and vases made by a ceramic artist.

The seven-course meal, which costs $150 a person, was created to showcase pottery by artist Gregg Moore, and the meal has drawn rave reviews from foodies. But in Moore's view, the food isn't art. Neither is his pottery, no matter how attractive one finds his delicate renderings of fruits and vegetables on the handmade platters.

The art, Moore says, is created by the experience: the food, ceramics, museum space and people who dine there together.

"The people who are eating are works of sculpture, and the piece isn't complete until the people are sharing this meal together," Moore said.

Moore's exhibit, titled "Heirloom," and the nightly dinner, called "Table d'Hote," are part of a movement known as social practice art. Social practice art seeks to bridge the gap between everyday experiences and traditional concepts of art. It's also designed to draw in people who might otherwise be unlikely to visit a traditional art museum.

"It's about breaking down any sense of elitism and making people see that art is for them," said Jen Delos Reyes, an artist and faculty member in Portland State University's Art and Social Practice Program, in Oregon. "Artists can operate in ways that don't involve the studio-gallery paradigm."

As part of a Portland social practice program called Shine a Light, local brewers toured the Portland Art Museum, and they then developed beers inspired by the collection, including "The Drunken Cobbler," an 18th-century painting by Jean Baptiste Greuze. Another evening, museum-goers got tarot card readings from a deck designed to showcase the museum's paintings and sculptures.

Delos Reyes said interactive elements help "create a relationship between artists' creative skills and engaging the viewer physically."

In Detroit, an artist created a full-scale replica of his childhood home, with the intention that it be used for social services. The home has a detachable facade known as the Mobile Homestead. After a summer stint in Los Angeles, it will return to Detroit and serve as a mobile lending library in communities where libraries have been shuttered.

For the Philadelphia dinner, rabbit stew is cooked in a cassoulet pot Moore crafted for the chef, Pierre Calmels. To showcase Calmels' salt-crusted branzino, Moore also designed a fish platter that allows servers to easily filet the fish tableside. And Moore's signature creations — pale blue porcelain berry baskets — become the vehicle for fresh berry clafouti, a custard-like dessert cake.

What happens if one of the dishes breaks? So far, none has, but museum spokeswoman Melissa Caldwell says the artist recognizes "the potential for damage."

Social practice art can involve many fields, including music, drama, and culinary arts, as well as social issues like hunger relief and literacy. The interdisciplinary approach allows artists to weave in various aspects of their lives and interests. Moore, for example, is a passionate gardener, and the work he created in Philadelphia depicts produce from his own garden as well as drawings from an 18th-century French agricultural text.

Artists have varying opinions about which interpretations and settings still constitute art.

"I think that art is subjective and dynamic. It's a matter of intention," said Harrell Fletcher, an artist and director of the art and social practice program at Portland State University. "An artist can decide to locate the art part of the project anywhere they want, or the location can be part of the art."

In Philadelphia, the Art Alliance is housed in a mansion near the city's elegant Rittenhouse Square. Calmels operates Le Cheri, a well-regarded restaurant, at the back of the museum. He says the Table d'Hote dinner is an extension of the food he serves there, with traditional French techniques enhancing fresh, seasonal food.

For museum visitors who are not inclined to stay for dinner, a wide-screen TV shows video footage of the dinner experience. "The dining experience is meant to be ephemeral," Moore said. "The video is our tangible archive of the experience."

___

If You Go...

HEIRLOOM: Show on display through Aug. 17 at Philadelphia Art Alliance, 261 South 18th St., Philadelphia, http://www.philartalliance.org. Open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Suggested donation, adults, $5, students/senior citizens, $3. Table d'Hote dinner offered Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30 p.m., through Aug. 10, reservations required, $150.

MOBILE HOMESTEAD: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit, http://www.mocadetroit.org. Suggested donation, adults, $5.

SHINE A LIGHT: Periodic social-practice activities at Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., Portland, Oregon, http://www.portlandartmuseum.org.

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