Museums are usually pretty quiet. But a Friday night at the Walters Art Museum is a different story. Drop in during evening hours and you might find yourself humming along to '80s dance music as you take in Raphael's Madonna of the Candelabra.
The Fridays at the Walters program, which extends museum hours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., brings different musicians to perform at the Museum Cafe or Graham Auditorium every Friday in an effort to lure new, often younger, visitors.
"We're working toward attracting people who want to engage with the museum in a more informal, social way," says Karl Jones, education coordinator of adult programs at the Walters. Jones advertises the events in part through youth-friendly myspace .com and the bands. "Just because you make something free doesn't mean it's accessible."
The latest focus of the project to recruit more visitors is on thematically linking the musical acts with the museum's featured art exhibits.
The continuing "Play Pause Repeat" series - which will include performances by cover artists and an Elvis tribute artist, as well as the Peabody New Ensemble's "Rockin' Rhythms Revisited" production - is designed to complement the museum's current exhibit Deja Vu, which highlights a tradition of repetition and copying in French painting.
The goal, Jones says, is a more interactive approach to art, not increased attendance at one of the museum's relatively rare ticketed exhibits (Deja Vu admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for college students and free for children).
"I don't want to call it a marketing ploy, because we're trying to be more personal and engaging and not just trying to get more people in," he says. "We could throw a party here every Friday night and have a bartender and get everyone drunk, or whatever, and that would get more numbers, more people through the door. But would that really be responsible ... programming in terms of getting people to connect and engage with the museum, rather than just come in for another happy hour, which they can have anywhere?"
A cash bar, coffee and snacks are part of the deal, but they are "not the main focus," according to Amy Mannarino, manager of public relations at the Walters.
The coupling of classic art and contemporary music may surprise some, but it's the historic museum's consistent bookings of avant-garde, under-the-radar bands that has raised eyebrows among those involved in the local music industry.
"I'm not surprised at the caliber of the artists just because of the prestige the Walters has in town," says Craig Boarman, co-owner of the Ottobar rock club on North Howard Street. "Them going cutting-edge - yes, I'm definitely surprised."
But the museum is not trying to insert itself into a young "scene," Jones says; the eclectic acts are merely meant to draw a broad range of people.
Whether the museum performances do the same for the bands, Boarman can't say.
"I'm sure the exposure is OK," he says hesitantly, "but I think it's more just an opportunity for the band to play at a prestigious venue."
That prestige, he adds, means musicians have to shape up their acts.
"If a band's playing there, they'll have to make sure to bring their A game," he says, "because there will be a lot of people there who might not have ever heard of the band, who are there more for the art."
People who do come just for the art, Mannarino says, don't mind the music, which allows the museum to maintain its core group of traditional visitors as it adds new ones. Audiences range from 40 to 300, she adds, depending on the band playing.
The program began last October, when the Walters dropped its admissions fees. Many museums nationwide have adopted similar policies of lowering admission rates and adding evening hours in an attempt to diversify their patronage.
Tomorrow, Ellen Cherry will perform covers of influential songs by female singer-songwriters in the Museum Cafe at 6:30 p.m. The Walters is at 600 N. Charles St. Admission is free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.