Martinifest leaves art museum shaken and stirred
Booking procedures reviewed after wild rental event; 2 artworks being examined
By MARY LOUISE SCHUMACHER
Posted: Feb. 27, 2006
The glistening white Santiago Calatrava addition has made the Milwaukee Art Museum one of the city's classiest social addresses. But a recent martini fete held there turned into an overcrowded, drunken affair. Some unruly guests accosted artworks, which have been taken off display for a checkup.
People threw up, passed out, were injured, got into altercations and climbed onto sculptures at Martinifest, a semi- formal event organized by Clear Channel Radio and held at the museum Feb. 11, according to several people who attended or worked at the event.
"Hindsight is 20-20 . . . it was probably too cheap," Kerry Wolfe, a local programming director for Clear Channel, said of the event's premise - unlimited martinis for $30.
"In our five years of experience, we have never had any problems with rental events," David Gordon, the museum's director, said in a brief written statement responding to questions about the event. "It was not an appropriate event to be held in the museum, and we have reviewed our procedures for bookings."
The art museum rents out space during most weekends and many weeknight evenings for events that often include food and drink, as many museums do. When he arrived about five years ago, Gordon liberalized the museum's policies about whom it would and would not rent space to in an attempt to attract a wider array of audiences for the museum. It is more welcoming to the community now than it was under the previous director, Russell Bowman, when the museum often turned away community groups and an event such as Martinifest would have been unthinkable.
Rental income has become important for the museum in its drive to meet operational costs. It represents 6% of annual revenue, according to the museum.
As was the case with prior events, the sculptures lining one of the long gallerias in the museum's Calatrava-designed building were in close proximity to serving areas during Martinifest. But this time, food, drink and vomit were on and around some of the artworks by night's end, according to some accounts.
"It was crazy," said attendee Kathleen Christians, 39. "People were shoving people over. People were getting sick, screaming, shouting, messing with the artwork."
A group of four young men climbed onto "Standing Woman," a tall, bronze sculpture of a goddess-like woman with exaggerated features by early 20th-century American artist Gaston Lachaise.
"They were standing on it, grabbing the boobs, and somebody was just taking pictures with a cell phone," said Laura Collins, 35.
Asked whether artworks had been damaged or are in need of cleaning, the museum said two sculptures had been removed for "review" and more would be known in two weeks, after the senior conservator returns to the museum and has had a look. The sculptures are made from resilient materials such as bronze.
At the event, several vendors ran out of food, drink mix and vodka early on. Some who ran out of mix started pouring straight shots of vodka, according to several accounts.
Restaurants and nightspots that took part in the event, paying $400 each to be included, included Sol Fire, The Knick, Silver Spring House, the Velvet Room, the Wicked Hop and several others.
"We were hoping for a little sophistication, maybe," said Casey Rataczak, 27, a Wicked Hop bartender. "People were shoving their martini glasses in my face and not wanting to talk about the product . . . they were just worked up about getting their booze."
Matthew Wheeler, 32, the beverage manager at The Knick, said the event was "a phenomenal idea" with "poor planning." For an event like that, he said, it is best to hand out drink tickets to limit alcohol intake.
"I have never worked a Summerfest, but it felt like a Summerfest," he said. "It was just non-stop people, people, people."
It might have been the sheer size of the crowd that turned the party into a potentially dangerous and damaging situation.
"We were sardined in," said Collins, a first-time museum visitor. "People, boy, they wanted their martinis."
Tina Zarnoth, 32, said: "It just seemed right off the bat that things were chaotic. There were too many people there . . . people were getting rowdier and rowdier by the hour."
Denise Curran, 34, a lab technician who was injured when someone leaned onto a table that fell onto her legs, said, "You couldn't go anywhere, there was no flow."
"My whole calf is one big, nasty bruise," she added.
In its statement, the museum said it had been "assured by Clear Channel that capacity would be limited to 1,400" and that it "was clear that the assurance was broken."
Clear Channel, a large entertainment corporation that owns six local radio stations, has staged about a half-dozen other events at the museum in the past four years, including one the night before Martinifest. Wolfe said the museum provided information that indicated capacity was 2,175. The museum said it never provided such a number.
The museum and Clear Channel had a preliminary agreement that tickets would be sold for about 1,500, said Wolfe, who called the event "a success" but agreed that it was too crowded. Clear Channel spoke to a woman on the museum's events staff the week before the event and told her what the higher potential number could be, Wolfe said.
"And nothing was ever said" at that time, he added.
A museum statement said there had been ongoing updates from Clear Channel, but a cap had been firmly agreed upon.
The museum's written statement indicated there was no way to determine what the actual attendance was. Vendors said they were expecting from 1,200 to 1,700, based on what Clear Channel had told them. Wolfe said Clear Channel sold 2,010 tickets, and he believed that 1,871 people attended. Only a few tickets were sold at the door, he said.
Clear Channel carried insurance for the event, as required by the written contract between the group and the museum, Wolfe said. Clear Channel has not been contacted by the museum about any damage to artworks but assumed that the insurance would cover whatever damage might have occurred, he added.
Police reported nothing major at the fest, but several attendees described minor injuries and other unpleasantries.
"We had seen this girl who had fallen," said Jamie Zwicky, 29, an emergency room nurse who attended the event. "She had a laceration on her head and some blood coming down . . . she looked very intoxicated."
A man who got into what Wolfe called a "family feud" with another man jumped from an outside terrace on the south side of the museum, several reported. The hospital where the man was taken told Wolfe the man was going to be fine.
Zwicky said that when she left about 11 p.m., four ambulances were outside the museum; Wolfe insisted there were two.
Wolfe said the museum agreed to provide security and cleanup staff and that the staffing was inadequate. Trash cans were overflowing and not emptied, he said.
The museum provided seven guards, including a supervisor, and additional support staff adequate for the planned event, the museum said in a statement. Clear Channel believed there were four guards, Wolfe said.
"I didn't see any museum guards," Collins said.
Zarnoth saw a few guards - removing a drunken young woman.
"Her arms were slung over them and her feet were dragging, basically," Zarnoth said. "I'd say that was pretty passed out."
The "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works With Light" feature exhibit was open for the first two hours of the event, including the first hour open only to VIP ticket holders who paid a premium, but a member of the museum staff stopped people with food or drink from entering.
The museum does not publicly disclose what it charges for its facilities, but Wolfe said it has always been competitive but substantial. Clear Channel traded significant radio advertising for the Martinifest rental, Wolfe said.
Very few museums allow food and drinks in exhibition and collection areas, though a majority permit entertaining in public spaces, according to a 2004 survey of the American Association of Museums. In spaces that are both public and used for displaying art, as in the Milwaukee museum's gallerias, policies vary greatly and are based on circumstance.
Clear Channel plans to stage another Martinifest in 2007 - in a larger location, Wolfe said.