The BMA's Free for All User-friendly: The art museum goes all out to attract visitors one night a month and is astonished at the result.


When the Baltimore Museum of Art invited area residents to an evening of free food, free drinks and free admission last month, a festive mob R.S.V.P.'d in droves. Hundreds of people crammed into the museum's labyrinthian galleries, schmoozed in hallways and devoured everything in sight.

As BMA staffers watched in amazement, the food, a tempting spread for 1,000 prepared by Donna's, quickly vanished. Some 4,000 glasses of beer and wine went down the hatch lickety-split. By the end of that rainy Thursday night in October, 2,601 guests had experienced their first Freestyle, a monthly event designed to attract new visitors to the museum for a gratis evening of socializing, live music, films performances and, of course, art appreciation.

Tonight, in concert with First Thursdays on Charles Street, the second Freestyle takes place, and this time the museum staff is ready for the hordes.

"If we have 5,000 people for the next Freestyle, we'll be thrilled," says BMA Director Arnold Lehman.

A monthly event such as Freestyle has been on the Baltimore Museum of Art's wish list for quite a while, Mr. Lehman says. But the cost of staging such an event made it prohibitive.

Enter the United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., underwriter of Freestyle events, each of which costs "thousands and thousands of dollars" to produce, according to Mr. Lehman. With the insurance company's assistance, the BMA has joined a growing number of museums and galleries around the country which are opening their doors at night to those who otherwise might not frequent the museum.

In Washington, the Phillips Collection has Artful Evenings, a mix of art appreciation, entertainment and socializing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art also hold extended evening hours packed with lectures, music and revelry.

Freestyle, like numerous BMA educational and outreach programs, is intended to counteract declining attendance at the museum by appealing to an expanded audience. Last October the museum attracted 10,137 people for "WINGDING!" the gala opening of its new wing for modern art. BMA officials expected the gleaming addition to boost attendance year round. But numbers have actually slipped from 322,073 in fiscal year 1994 to 311,577 in 1995.

The BMA is also anxious to increase its membership, and last month's Freestyle produced long lines around two membership tables. By the end of the night, the museum had gained 105 new members and secured the renewals of 55 others.

Boosting membership, Mr. Lehman says, is the key to the museum's vitality. "Everything grows out of membership." People "who have relationships with the museum" begin to participate in annual giving programs and may progress to become important donors, volunteers and even trustees, he says.

A healthy membership base is also a way to hedge against the slashing of public funds for arts programs, a possibility that the BMA, as well as museums and cultural institutions around the country, must confront. Between 1975 and 1995, the BMA received more than $5 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum Services.

If the first Freestyle was any indication, the BMA after dark is a welcome place for many.

Freestyle guests of all stripes roamed the museum's halls and galleries: Chic model types with Armani attitude, moody hipsters, art students in shredded jeans, professionals in work attire, older women in fine hats and parents bearing diaper bags.

Inside the Alexander Calder exhibit, children and parents created their own colorful mobiles while others giggled at a video of the late artist as he manipulated his whimsical circus figures.

Guests watched Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" in the BMA theater and sipped wine while listening to a breezy jazz combo.

Alicia Miziolek and Katie Hammond, Bryn Mawr School chums, were completing a turn around the museum. "My mom read about [Freestyle]. It sounded like fun," Ms. Miziolek said. "I like to go to museums, especially if there's free food." Although the food was long gone, the two friends, if famished, were enjoying themselves.

Carol Stripling was the kind of Freestyle guest Mr. Lehman was hoping for. An art lover born and reared in Baltimore, she said, "I probably haven't visited [the museum] in 20 years."

At one time, the BMA's typical visitor was "probably a middle-aged white woman from Homeland or Roland Park or Bolton Hill," Mr. Lehman says. "That's changed pretty dramatically."

Today, the museum audience includes families, youth, singles and people of all races and ethnicities. Because so many people are in the work force and leisure time is scarce, the BMA is committed to devising new ways of serving its "multiple constituencies," Mr. Lehman says.

"We are part of the real urban composition of this community," Mr. Lehman says. "We want the African-American community to think of the museum as home. We want young people to think of the museum as home. We want people with families to think of the museum as home. We can't just wish it; we have to do stuff to make that work."

One might argue that Freestyle's premiere was too successful, that the lack of food and the museum crush undermined the event's goal of making the museum an inviting place to be.

Parking was a hassle. Some guests had to park three blocks south on Howard Street even though Art Museum Drive was closed to two-way traffic to accommodate more cars. The drive will be closed again tonight.

"Believe me, we were never prepared for that number of people," Mr. Lehman says. The BMA had planned for 500 to 750 guests at the most, he says. At tonight's Freestyle, staff and volunteers will steer people throughout the building to avoid gridlock. Finger food, not dinner, will be served with complimentary beer and wine.

But Charlene Levine, who went to the first Freestyle, won't go back again for a while.

"Maybe I'll try it again in six months," she said as she left the museum last month. "I'm hoping people will lose interest in it."

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