Why We Love to Hate Gallery Dinners

The art world’s dining rituals reinforce its class barriers – which is why we should value the museum coffee

Frieze considers the role of food – aesthetically, sensorially, politically, environmentally – in contemporary culture

Amy Sillman, Table Three, 2009. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Amy Sillman, Table Three, 2009. Courtesy: the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

In the art industry, dining is both a private and public-facing business tool. For professionals, it commonly takes the form of the post-opening gallery dinner. First the liturgy: ‘Are you coming to the dinner?’ ‘I have to go to another dinner.’ ‘I have dinners every night this month.’ Information for ranking a person’s social capital, for dodging social embarrassment, for performing ennui. Excuses betray motives. ‘I’d rather stay home but I’m working with the artist on the Guam Quinquennial,’ you hear a curator say. Their ubiquity at these dinners suggests otherwise: relentless ambition, no friends outside art and an income so low they’ll otherwise starve.

In big cities, gallery dinner venues rotate between the timeless classic restaurant, the newly fashionable and the once-cool-turned-uncool-turned-adorably-nostalgic. (Post-prandial events, genuflections to The Gods of Authenticity, are traditionally held at a dive bar in mortal danger of gen-trification.) Dinners serve multiple purposes, none concerning food. For some, it’s institutional diplomacy in action. For the artist’s friends, a collegiate catch-up. For the hosts, a routine calendar fixture; for their employees, additional hours of unpaid work.

The average art dinner guest wonders: why am I here? Representing your organization. Making career connections. Peacocking status to your peer group. Your presence might even be serving interests unknown to you. As canapés circulate and wine flows, you’ll start to believe you’re there ‘for the community’, despite your true community being across town doing a pub quiz. The theatre of food hides the fact that it’s work for everyone, albeit highly rarefied. Food is leverage. If they let you near the grilled asparagus wontons, it’s likely they want something from you in return. 

Take the artist. They’re the deer-in-the-headlights obliged to make nice with collectors at top table. Or they’re the Art Bros behaving like spoilt toddlers, playing Fantasy League Art Career under the calculating watch of their business representatives. The liveliest dinners are held by galleries skilled at creating a dynamic mix of unusual people from a variety of fields, including the hard-working, backstage staff who help make their shows happen. The dreariest court clients and technocrats. Often, Seating Plan Roulette decrees you spend the meal next to an artist who understands the word ‘conversation’ to mean a one-way interview about their career. (My former colleague, Jennifer Higgie, dubbed this garden-variety narcissist ‘The No-Bounce-Back’; I call these encounters ‘Resumé Recitals’.) Dinner companions can be surprising. I remember the art adviser who told me that extreme wealth was a sign of virtue, and then recounted how she’d met her partner at the circus. She was in the audience; he was a clown. It was love at first sight.

The stains of class show up best in low-lit restaurants. If you were raised to believe it’s impolite to leave food on your plate or to get up before the meal has ended, then you’ll clock those who blithely interrupt conversation to sit at another table, who take food for granted, who won’t make an effort with those beneath whatever social rank they flatter themselves to belong to. Well-educated and socially illiterate people from London or New York who, following the opening of an important show in a small regional city, remonstrate with a local bar for not having the ingredients to make negronis. People who cannot grasp why, as once happened at a frieze dinner, local kids would throw stones at them through the restaurant windows.

For the privileged, art meets food according to a broader lifestyle imperative that urges us to be connoisseurs of the good things in life: good design, good vacations, good sushi. An aspiration fed by disposable incomes. But for most, art and food means cardboard sandwiches in a museum basement or a sunny coffee shop selling vegan brownies next to the kunsthalle’s bookstore. The cafe is integral to the museum-going public’s experience – along with the show, the gift shop and the guided tour. Here, elderly people sit, students gossip, parents distract restive children. Spaces for those whose lives do not afford hours of devotional art-viewing. In regional towns, a museum cafe may be the only venue that serves healthy food, feels safe or where culture can be accessed if other resources – say, the library – have been shuttered. It can provide proximity to art without the pressure to engage with a programme that might, for some, be intimidating. 

I’ve been lucky to be wined and dined in the art world. But give me vegan brownies in a sunny cafe over the event I once attended – a benefit for a non-profit organization – where I watched a prominent collector licking a full-scale chocolate replica of Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) whilst an expensive-looking couple rolled around on a pyramid of peanuts, and honey was slow-drizzled onto a table piled with 2,000 pounds of ribs. That’s a paradox of the art world: it’s about class even when it’s got none.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the headline ‘Seating Plan Roulette’.

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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