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Toronto museums let loose with adults-only parties that mix art with alcohol

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TORONTO - A massive duck-billed dinosaur looms over the dance floor at one of Toronto's newest hot spots, overlooking the DJ churning out throbbing house music.

On the other side, a hulking Buddha sits cross-legged, its hands clasped in prayer.

It's Friday night and the Royal Ontario Museum is teeming with young women in minidresses and staggeringly high heels along with young men in collared shirts — outfits more often reserved for a night on the town than touring the natural history wing.

For one evening a week, the hallowed halls of one of Canada's largest museums shake off the mantle of formality with a party that blends the buzz of a bar with the nerdy thrill of rare fossils, ancient suits of armour and other artifacts.

The adults-only celebrations are the latest effort by museum officials to lure young professionals with the most basic bait: music, food and, of course, alcohol.

Bars are scattered throughout the space, tucked between galleries and among towering dinosaur skeletons, while food-truck-inspired booths dish out cupcakes, tacos and fries.

"We want people to feel welcome in the museum and feel that they can come and explore," said Janet Carding, the museum's director and CEO.

"We've brought in an audience through this kind of programming who I don't think would have visited the museum in the same numbers otherwise," she said.

The original 10-week trial run this spring proved so popular that the museum revived the event, dubbed Friday Night Live, for a second series in the fall. Another set is planned for May after a break for the winter, Carding said.

The ROM isn't the only Toronto museum to follow the path paved by its counterparts in New York, Sydney and elsewhere.

The Art Gallery of Ontario recently started hosting a boozy bash on the first Thursday of the month, adding a hands-on element with a free life drawing class with nude models.

"We absolutely know that the traditional, sedate, quiet walk-and-look kind of art experience that museums have traditionally offered is simply not going to cut it for a younger audience who is used to interaction, multi-discipline, multi-sensory — and in the Internet age, content when they want it and how they want it," said Kelly McKinley, the gallery's executive director of education and public programming.

"People want to make stuff; people do not have many opportunities in their lives for that kind of very direct creative outlet," she added.

The monthly event has been mapped out through March, but the gallery plans to carry on for the rest of the year, McKinley said.

Aside from the chance to mix learning and liquor, the nighttime gatherings offer party-goers another unique advantage.

"What we've found is, by just having adults in the space, they have found that it's easier for them to go and explore areas that might otherwise be full of families and full of children," the ROM's Carding said.

Party nights consistently pack more than 2,000 people into what would otherwise have been empty halls, according to both venues.

At the most recent ROM event, giddy revellers posed for cellphone snapshots with a stuffed polar bear and sipped beer from plastic cups while peering at display cases full of ornate Tang Dynasty roof tiles.

Sisters Helen and Alex Chiang, 25 and 32, wandered excitedly in the biodiversity gallery, stopping to point and gape at more unusual specimens such as the crested oarfish, a long Mediterranean fish with a spiky red dorsal fin.

Both had visited the museum before, "but it's more fun with alcohol and music," the younger Chiang said.

"It's a very different vibe than the normal museum, which is very serious," her sister chimed in.

The livelier atmosphere and later hours are a must for the younger set, Alex Chiang added.

Without a twist to draw them in, "who would go (to the museum) more than five or six times a year?" she asked.

A few metres away, Marc Apollonio gazed pensively at the beasts inside the glass display cases.

While he appreciated the party as "an anthropological experience of nightlife and nature," the 34-year-old said he enjoys daytime visits just as much, noting the quieter setting makes it easier to examine the exhibits.

"I'm less likely to ponder and admire for very long when I'm jonesing for another beer," he said.

Balancing patrons' desire to let loose with what's best for the collection takes ongoing effort and collaboration with the museum's conservationists, Carding said.

Some more sensitive areas are off-limits to those toting snacks and beverages, and last call is at a relatively early 11 p.m.

But the parties' continuing success is proof the public isn't just in it for the booze, she said.

"They're actually enjoying seeing the galleries and the collections," she said. "If people just came and simply chatted and partied, this wouldn't be of the same level of interest for us."

———

If You Go...

—Buy tickets in advance at www.rom.on.ca/en/activities-programs/rom-friday-night-live or tickets.ago.net. The parties sell out quickly and there are long lineups for tickets at the door. Cover for non-members is $10; members pay $8 at the AGO and get in free at the ROM.

—Bring cash for snacks and drinks (or in the ROM's case, for tickets that you trade in for snacks and drinks).

—Know your limits. You don't want to be the person who threw up in a museum.

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