An All-Nighter At The Museum

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Manhattan’s great art museums always get plenty of shut-eye. The collections are rarely open past dinnertime and stay dark all night. But as part of the Whitney Biennial, the contemporary art museum is open 24 hours a day this week. The all-nighter was suggested by an artist as a work of performance art.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but its great art museums usually shut their doors before dinnertime.

Well, not this week. The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan is staying open for 72 hours straight. The all-nighters are part of a performance art piece, but they also present an opportunity to bring in the insomniac crowd.

So we rousted NPR's Robert Smith out of bed and sent him to survey the art world after midnight.

ROBERT SMITH: Most great nocturnal adventures start in a bar. So I stopped by McAllen's Pub on the Upper East Side around closing time. Still, I can't get any of these inebriated folks to consider a nightcap of contemporary art.

Mr. EDDIE CHAKMAWI(ph): I'm definitely not going to the museum. It's not going to happen at all.

SMITH: Eddie Chakmawi says he has more R-rated pursuits in mind for tonight.

Good night, sir.

Mr. CHAKMAWI: Buenas noches.

SMITH: Of course, they couldn't have guessed that the usually buttoned-up Whitney Museum is now the crazy, sexy after-party.

JAN YABLOW(ph) (Tour Guide, Whitney Museum of American Art): Good morning, Folks. If you wish, please join me, the tour just started.

SMITH: Okay, an after-party with docents and museum guards. Our guide, Jan Yablow, says there's nothing especially different about the Whitney's collection in the wee small hours, but there does seem to be an adult vibe to the tour.

Mr. YABLOW: Some look at this void and see that there is a sexual connotation, an orifice, something relating to a woman's body part.

SMITH: It looks like we're going to get that R-rated evening after all. A few hundred night owls, bar hoppers and artists prowl these floors. Charles Hardwick(ph) invited all of his fellow bartenders to come out.

Mr. CHARLES HARDWICK (Bartender, New York): We're fairly nocturnal, so I thought this would be a unique opportunity that I'm pretty sure won't ever come up again, and they're sort of straggling in as bartenders tend to do.

SMITH: And sharing the museum with some of their customers. Andrew Dong(ph) is in finance and said the middle of the night is literally the only time he has to see this collection. And as he stared at an abstract painting, he said it all kind of makes sense now.

Mr. ANDREW DONG: I think late at night, your thoughts are a little different. Your mind is on a different wavelength.

SMITH: In this case, just being inside the museum at this hour is part of the art. The Whitney is doing its biennial survey of contemporary works. And artist Michael Asher suggested as his project, that the Whitney stay open all day and all night for an entire week.

Curator Gary Carrion-Murayari says they only have the staffing and money to do it for three nights.

Mr. GARY CARRION-MURAYARI (Associate Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art): He's trying to open up the museum to new possibilities of viewing and imagine a world where, you know, museums are available to us at any time we want and art is available to us at any time we want. So it's a very utopian kind of goal.

SMITH: And a huge logistical challenge. The museum guards are working 12-hour shifts from midnight to noon.

Linda Priest(ph) looks exhausted by 2:00 a.m.

Are you nodding off?

Ms. LINDA PRIEST (Guard, Whitney Museum of American Art): Yeah, but then I wash my face, wash my eyes.

SMITH: So far, she says the patrons haven't caused much trouble, although she does smell the alcohol in their breath.

I caught a trio of tipsy artists inappropriately touching a sculpture, and a young couple inappropriately touching each other until they got caught.

Unidentified Man: A good 30 seconds. A memorable 30 seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Are you telling me you're making out in one of the (unintelligible) art rooms?

Unidentified Man: Unfortunately, yes.

Unidentified Woman: I told him I'm going to remember this forever.

SMITH: One would have to assume that all of this was part of the artist's plan when he proposed that the Whitney stay up all night, and museum staffer Joel Snyder(ph) shows me the glue that keeps this sculpture together.

Mr. JOEL SNYDER (Staff, Whitney Museum of American Art): Lots of coffee.

SMITH: Is the free coffee part of the artwork?

Mr. SNYDER: I guess it is part of the experience, so maybe it is part of the art.

SMITH: Well, I, for one, am going to get a to-go cup of art, a little bit of cream and catch a taxicab home. It's getting late.

Robert Smith, NPR News, at the Whitney Museum after-hours.

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