Pink and blue lights, a stone pharaoh, and over a thousand people dressed to impress in red and black, complete with high heels. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s usual entrance is transformed, making you feel as though you’ve just walked into a high-society gala. But something’s different. Almost everyone around you is between the ages of 18 and 22. And there are a few familiar faces—that girl from your art history class, that boy you know from NYU.
The College Group at the Met—an organization comprised of 25 students that aims to increase art literacy and promote museum attendance—throws an extravagant, free-of-charge party once (sometimes twice) a year for college students in New York City. This year’s party, held last Thursday, was themed “A Brush with Asia” and centered around the new “Ink Art” exhibit in the Florence and Herbert Irving Asian Wing of the museum. Students were encouraged to wear red to pay homage to the Chinese heritage that the art celebrated. The event involved live music by professional DJs, a full-service bar, professional tattoo artists applying temporary tattoos, a photo booth, finger foods, and of course, the new exhibit.
Donna Williams, chief audience development officer for the Met, is the mastermind behind these parties. Williams formed the College Group at the Met eight years ago, after realizing during a vacation in southern California that college students in New York weren’t as excited about art as the students she saw during her trip.
“It was great seeing students interested in the art for the art itself,” Williams says of the students she saw in California. “They weren’t coming there because they had to. I thought that the demographics of that college-age group here in New York City were not as strong as we would like.”
Williams returned to New York and began forming a committee that would be responsible for increasing museum attendance among New York City college students. Her role is to analyze the demographics of the Met’s visitors in order to monitor college student attendance and to head a committee of 25 students who plan and host events like last week’s party.
The organization holds special tours, drawing classes with live models, writing contests, poetry readings, and film screenings throughout the year, according to Kathryn Nemeth, the group’s college marketing associate. The group caters to a diverse demographic: Attendees of College Group events include students from the Fashion Institute of Technology, The New School, and Brooklyn College, as well as Columbia and NYU. And they include both graduate students and undergraduates, as well as art history and non-art history majors alike.
“Those events are pretty successful,” Nemeth says. “This event is the biggest one, however, and brings out the largest crowd.” The key to success here is making art a more social experience.
Nadira Rahman, a first-year at Barnard College, lives in the Bronx and has gone to the Met several times. “I grew up here, went to high school here, and now I’m at Barnard. College students in the city are really busy, and making the trip to and from the Met is time-consuming—even more so when it’s just for fun.” Rahman says. “When I do go, I enjoy the experience, and I enjoy the exhibit; but with work and school, it’s not easy to go as often as I would like.” But Rahman still attended the College Group party last week.
“It turns a Thursday night into something more fun, and it puts a different spin on the experience of going to a museum, because you get to socialize with students your age, with at least one common interest with you—the artwork you’re there for,” she says.
But some students don’t need an incentive to go to the museum. Emma Stephens—a first-year at Barnard College from Utah—has been to the Met over a dozen times, and she also frequents the Guggenheim Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of ModernArt.“I enjoy learning people’s stories through artwork to get a new perspective on my coursework,” she says. “The appeal of dressing up, going to the museum after hours, and having a sense of exclusivity to the event makes me want to continue attending events like this as often as I can.” Stephens says she doesn’t need any more convincing to return to the Met to finish viewing the exhibit.
But Debayan Guha, a junior at Columbia College, is more skeptical of the success of such events. Guha worked at the Met for six months and found himself staying after work to visit specific exhibits. He began spending an increasing amount of time at the museum for the art, not just for his work. “We go to school at Columbia that has an art hub, a music hub, students who pursue art history and the fine arts,” Guha says. “We also go to a school with thousands of pre-med, finance, and science students—myself included. But being at Columbia launches you into adulthood earlier, making even college interactions more competitive and professional.”
Guha says the College Group at the Met holds its college parties to bring extroverted students into the art space. But once they were in that art space, many attendees seemed more focused on the food, the photos, and taking pictures with paintings and sculptures.
“I didn’t see many actually stopping to read the information about the art that a curator spent time coming up with for this audience, and that’s where the event seems lacking,” he says. “These large, social gatherings are not necessary to bring college students into a museum—I have introverted friends who enjoy spending time with the art. There was a one-hour discussion prior to the event that was not as hyped, to discuss the art with the artists, and that was my favorite part.”
And Guha has a point. As I wait for my coat, ready to leave the party, I feel dissatisfied, somehow. Students swarm the coat check, admiring their temporary tattoos and photo booth pictures. What makes for a successful College Night at the Met? Satisfying finger foods, a cute themed outfit, and a couple of artsy Instagram uploads, of course. But whether a greater appreciation for art is part of the equation is not so easy to affirm.