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In Slow Summer, Museums Woo Visitors With Pop-Up Bars and Extended Hours

MADCrush at the Museum of Arts and Design
MADCrush at the Museum of Arts and Design
Photo: Stephanie Goto

With a slowdown in programming and fewer third parties looking to rent them as venues, summer isn't the most bustling time for some museums. So to fill the seasonal lull, two of Manhattan's more niche institutions—the Museum of Arts and Design and the Museum of the City of New York—instituted weekly event series with after-hours tours and pop-up bars.

The Museum of Arts and Design, still a new resident of Columbus Circle's famed Lollipop Building, has been open late on Thursday evenings since reopening last autumn but only recently opened a temporary wine bar when some networking with a designer resulted in a partnership with Midtown's Crush Wine & Spirits.

"This was something our director had kind of crafted and thought might be interesting to try," said museum special events manager Stephanie Lang of the bar, called MADCrush. "She had a relationship with Stephanie Goto, and Stephanie brought in Crush. Partnering allowed us to have affordable wine, design, and atmosphere."

Designer Goto created the physical bars, decor, and seating in the seventh floor event space entirely out of wine boxes and packaging, and though guests seemed nervous about interacting with the delicate-looking installation, it was sturdy enough to last all five weeks. Making it easy, after all, was part of the motivation. To simplify the exchange of money, guests bought cards at the door for certain values so hole-punchers could substitute for a register at the counters that served wine and food from a rotating roster of caterers.

Estimates place attendance between 800 and 900 people for the first four Thursdays, twice the number of guests usually seen during Thursday evening's pay-as-you-wish hours. "Ultimately, whatever profits are derived, the money goes back to the museum," said Lang, "but it's not about being a huge moneymaker. It's about getting our name out there to a new audience."

Extended hours are a first for the Museum of the City of New York. The 103rd Street location might have factored into its reluctance before, but this summer was a natural time for the museum to test the waters with a speakeasy-themed bar night. "The museum has always considered staying open late one evening a week," says museum vice president of communications Barbara Livenstein, who worked to develop the program. "We really wanted a theme to tie it to something specifically to New York's history, and there's so much to be found from the Prohibition era."

A full-fledged speakeasy exhibition wasn't realistic on short notice, but being the authority on local history—and the city's storied affinity for alcohol—there were enough relics and pieces of art to create the thematic mini exhibition that producers assembled and took down each Wednesday. The admission charge of $12—just $10 for members—offered guests access to the collection, the first and second-floor galleries, and a complimentary Prohibition era cocktail from catering partner A Sterling Affair.

Attendance during the seven-week series has stayed around 400 each Wednesday night after opening with a crowd of 250 on July 15, and planners expect an extra push for the final installment tonight, when the museum partners with downtown jazz nostalgists Club Wit's End to present a thematic program of live music and dance. "We've previously invited certain meet-up groups," Livenstein said, "but this is the first time that the museum has put together a full program."

Both museums conclude their pop-up bars this week, and though there aren't yet official plans to resume them next summer, each remains optimistic about bringing them back in some iteration.

That's not to say there's nothing on their respective calendars. The Museum of Arts and Design will continue its extended hours and pay-as-you-wish policy on Thursday nights and has plenty of private events booked for fall, including Fashion Week parties and its own Paper Ball, a celebration of its one-year anniversary at 2 Columbus Circle. And for the Museum of the City of New York, autumn brings more rentals of the space, members-only events, and evening programming.

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