Not your grandmother's art museum

The lights are off, the bass is throbbing. Hundreds of people are everywhere-pressed up against the walls, circling  the DJ, drinks eternally in hand.

All are dressed as though they just stepped out of a Gucci ad.

It's Friday night, and Chicagoans, especially those under 35, know this isn't the time for sitting at home in front of the TV. So they head to the museum.

But this isn't your grandmother's trip to the museum -- It's First Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

From 6 to 10 p.m. on the first Friday of each month, the Chicago Avenue institution is transformed into the swankiest of nightclubs. Twenty- and thirty-somethings descend upon the four-story museum for live DJs, drinks and hors d'oeuvres served up against a backdrop of the MCA's cutting-edge exhibits.

And they come by the masses-the event's organizers expect at least 1,000 people to attend Friday.

The museum began hosting First Fridays in 1996 when it moved to its new, Josef Paul Kleihues-designed building. Building each party around a theme is a new idea, however, and the events have gotten more popular in recent months.

"The general motive behind starting the event was to attract a new demographic," said MCA spokeswoman Erin Baldwin, "but also to support and encourage local artists who are in that age group."

Themes amp up the atmosphere, and past choices have ranged from Decadence to Celebrity to Serenity, though the Seven Deadly Sins have been popular of late.

Activity stations and booths scattered though the museum's galleries reflect the night's theme.

Wrath night featured a station to make voodoo dolls, a booth for shredding photos of former lovers and live kickboxing demonstrations. Wrath, indeed.

Each First Friday coincides with the preview of a new exhibit in the MCA's 12 x 12 New Artist/New Work series.

The series showcases the work of up-and-coming local artists. A recent Friday was devoted to photographs by Melanie Schiff, whose large-scale, voyeuristic photographs depict interior spaces where visual and other artists make their work.

The exhibition's centerpiece, "Cannon Falls (Cobain Room)," captures the interior space of the Kurt Cobain room at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minn, where Nirvana recorded a number of tracks.

Unashamedly, the MCA's First Fridays are less about art than about drinking and mingling.

The bulk of the crowds-and they are crowds-will linger around tables of free Wolfgang Puck appetizers.

Slowly, as the night progresses, some will break off in small groups to take in the museum's collection of avant-garde modern work, but they are in a clear minority.

In a way, though, some of the art becomes even more powerful juxtaposed with young, well-dressed party-goers.

It becomes grittier or more beautiful.

Some of the installations seem as to be expressly designed to be viewed only once one has escaped from the noisy throngs on the museum's first floor. In particular, the fourth-floor photography exhibit seems to lie in wait for those who purposefully seek it out. Its experimental, sometimes brutally edgy works become more resonant when, just a few floors below, hundreds of young people are focused on their own art of personal attraction.

The MCA's currently running main exhibit, by American artist Rudolf Stingel, perfectly complements First Friday's interactive atmosphere. Stingel has covered the huge room's walls with a tin-foil-like substance. He invites visitors to write on the walls, dig into the foil or tape on items of their choice.

First Friday crowds have obliged, and Stingel's walls are a mass of punctures, graffiti, coins and business cards.

In a nearby gallery, a wall of carpet attracts visitors who  trace designs with their fingertips, or to wipe away the inscriptions of others.

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