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See Inside May 2006

The Proof Is on the Painting

Mixing drinks and culture is an art



FRANK VERONSKY
Like an examiner for the National Transportation Safety Board analyzing a plane crash, I'm trying to identify the factors that led to a recent calamity at the Milwaukee Art Museum. First, in retrospect, it's probably a bad idea to use an art museum for any kind of all-you-can-drink event.

When the event is dubbed Martini¿fest--unlimited martinis for $30--the idea becomes even more questionable. Next, add a suspicious martini recipe, which included vodka and "drink mix," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This situation is a classic example of experts assuming that their proficiency extends to other areas--Milwaukeeans, there's no shame in accepting your status as beer connoisseurs and consulting a specialist for the preparation of other alcoholic beverages.

In addition, the event was run by Clear Channel, the radio/billboard/concert-promoter giant, also working outside its area of expertise in an art museum. Finally, cram about 1,900 people into a space meant for about 1,400. Here's the capsule summary from the Journal Sentinel: "People threw up, passed out, were injured, got into altercations and climbed onto sculptures." Which is either really bad management or a fairly banal example of postmodernism.

Fortunately, the worst-offended pieces were sturdy sculptures. But as a service to other art museums possibly planning all-you-can-drink boozefests, I got in touch with Jennifer Mass, a chemist and senior scientist at the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate in Winterthur, Del., to find out about the dangers that drunken revelry poses to objets d'art such as the paintings sometimes found in your better museums.

Consider the three major categories of hazardous materials. The first is ethanol, the drinkable kind of alcohol. "Paintings are typically varnished with triterpenoid resins," Mass explains. "Ethanol would be an extremely aggressive solvent for those materials. Typically what happens after museum parties where alcohol is involved--which is always a bad idea to begin with--is that you get drips that wind up on paintings. And what you see is kind of a frosted appearance to the varnish. The varnish is actually starting to dissolve."

Hors d'oeuvres also pose a danger. Imagine some indiscriminately flung meats and cheeses. "Some of the materials that we have in foods, like proteins and carbohydrates, are also used in paintings," Mass says. "And then cleaning becomes a real problem, because the same solvent that would remove the food would also remove some of the original paint."

The acid test, literally, comes when paintings encounter--how to put this delicately--an ipecascade. "You've got the low pH from the stomach acid, combined with digestive enzymes, combined with the alcohol," Mass points out. "It would be extremely damaging to an object of art. We use enzyme treatments to clean objects of art, so that is something that is going to be an incredibly aggressive mixture."

Ah, but if the painting needed to be cleaned anyway, might a barf bath actually be a positive? "Too many unknown materials are going to be in someone's stomach contents," Mass speculates. "You could wind up eating right through the original varnish and attacking a painting with that mixture. So I can't say that it would start the job for you." Bottom line: do not allow your priceless masterpieces to be emetically sealed.

So how close to the art should people get at museum parties that include snacks and snifters? "We tend to keep people out of the rooms where there are original objects of art when there's food and drink involved," Mass says. "What a concept. And if there are pieces that are too large to be moved, then they should be roped off." Because it's far better to be roped off than ralphed on.

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