Friday Night at the PMA

The change in weather was instantaneous for most. A mix of museum regulars, families, and students, encrusted with ice shed their windproof layers and melted into the sounds of a decidedly warmer climate.  As the recent bout of winter weather swept through Philadelphia last weekend, the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its doors and tried to cure its visitors’ frostbite with Latin sound. As part of its ongoing series of Friday Night at the Museum, the PMA hosted Conjunto Philadelphia for a night of dancing to Cuban music. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been offering this program this year and has showcased a different musical act each week that matches a monthly theme. March’s small-group musician theme brought the local group Conjunto Philadelphia up the iconic Rocky steps and into the marble atrium.
Visitors filed into the seating of the iconic staircase in the main hall, turning the solemn steps below the golden Diana into impromptu bleachers. Taking their place behind congas or lifting guatacas, the members of Conjunto Philadelphia wasted no time to introducing themselves and dove into their first set of the night. Ripping through the chatter, the trumpet of the first salsa of the night seemed to ring through one’s chest. Several visitors, who happened to be going up the stairs at the time and had not realized the band was starting, lost their footing as Conjunto Philadelphia’s opening bars shook the PMA. Some of the oldest and youngest in attendance carefully descended the staircase to dance in the space between the band and the crowd. Early on, guests still clung to the spaces they had carved out on the steps. As the evening crowd begin to thicken, friction developed between local students and some older couples as they fought for the last inches of space, balancing plates of tapas style flatbread or glasses of chardonnay. However, the urging of the band with the example of one young girl who decided to brave the winter weather and the dance floor in an Elsa dress, many peeled themselves away from their seats to join the dance.
“If all you can do is dance terribly, please dance terribly. We’re here to have a great time with you, and if you can come up to the dance floor and share your passion with us we would be so appreciative,” one member of Conjunto Philadelphia announced.
After assuaging the fears of visitors who hadn’t quite mastered their mambo, the band started their next piece, a Cha Cha Cha entitled Rico Vacilon. Compared to the earlier, brisker, trumpet led tune, Rico Vacilon seemed to be inserted as a warmup for those still nervous about stepping with the syncopated beat of a Cuban rhythm. A soft set of vocals with a tumbadora coaxed strangers and spouses to pair up and just move with the music.
While music and food dominated the main hall, it’s important to note the museum’s other wings remained open throughout the event. However, the experience in the galleries was far from unaffected by the festivities downstairs. The sounds of Rico Vacilon filtered down the corridors into the period rooms and halls of armory. For one who is more than an occasional visitor, the galleries took on a new dreamlike atmosphere growing more surreal as the distance from the main hall increased. The same vocals that made the colors of Sargent’s watercolors shimmer a little brighter on the first floor were warped and garbled in the European wing on the second. The hall of 19th century European painting suffered from a particularly strange set of acoustics. Differently pitched but equally corrupted versions of the same song leaked in from its two entrances converging into cacophony somewhere around Coypel’s “Abduction of Europa. Overall the effect was more than a little forbidding and the backdrop to viewing the works of Bronzino or Munch was enough of an incentive for most to return to the music. But, in the end the gallery’s audio dissonance may have been for the best, as the events downstairs had progressed into a salsa and few were left in their seats.
For Swarthmore students who missed out on last week’s Friday Night at Museum feature, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is offering another chance to enjoy music, drinks, and food this week. There are no signs of the series ending anytime soon, and the PMA’s calendar is currently offering up a tasting menu of cultural events and music. With next week’s listing set as the appropriately Irish Donohue troupe, the event for the final Friday of this month is already rousing up chatter among students on campus as the Philadelphia Museum of Art nears its 100th anniversary celebration of Duchamp’s infamous submission of a urinal to the 1917 armory exhibition with a night of Dadaist scavenger hunts and DJs.

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