California Academy of Sciences offers a night at the museum

NIghtlife
Shirin Ghaffary/Staff

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It wasn’t the usual dinosaur skeletons and fossil artifacts that attracted visitors’ attention at the California Academy of Sciences last Thursday night but rather the chance to see art in the making.

The 160-year-old natural science museum transformed itself to an interactive arts space for the “gallery crawl”-themed version of its weekly after-hours event. While NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences is always appealing for the chance to party while exploring the wonders of a natural science museum, it was the participatory art events that made it especially worthwhile.

From zine-making to edible art experiments, there was a great deal to choose from at the event — but the live painting was one of the most captivating stations.

“I’m just as comfortable painting here as in a studio,” said San Francisco-based artist William Arvin, 28, who painted a stylized 1930s Amelia Earhart-era figure to a crowd of excited onlookers. Although there was an impressive display of extinct moa birds a few feet away, it was Arvin’s act of painting that caught the most attention.

“One of the things I don’t like about the galleries is they’re very stiff and clinical,” said painter and muralist Jon Weiss, whose art included a large mural depicting what he imagined as a plant’s mind going through photosynthesis. “But here, I get to be in a dynamic space.”

Like most weekly Thursday events, the crowd was a vibrant bunch of 20-somethings and young working professionals. Disc jockeys from record label 100% Silk blasted techno in the aquarium area, transforming the space into a kind of underwater-themed nightclub where the fish did most of the dancing as guests bobbed their heads, sipping on Persian lime-flavored cocktails.

Overall, the event’s biggest success was in moments of collaboration between attendees and artists. The Instagram scavenger hunt designed by renowned portrait photographer Alec Soth invited a social media-friendly crowd to do more than text with their iPhones and engage in an en masse art project. Other showings, such as animal-inspired Andy Warhol-type prints, were impressive, but the innovative art-maker’s stations were what made the night unique.

The nontraditional setting also made the fine art more accessible to museumgoers. Most artists were at the show were not only present but engaging with visitors, which cracked the sometimes invisible barrier between artist and viewer in more traditional exhibits.

“The dancing, live art and interaction here is really fun,” said Doga Tuncay, one museumgoer from Chicago. “Where I’m from, the museums are stiff and boring. All you do is look at art.”

It was refreshing to see that even San Francisco’s iconic natural history museum is following the refreshing Bay Area arts-scene shift toward collaboration in the museum. The event comes on the heels of SFMOMA’s On the Go exhibits and the Berkeley Art Museum’s upcoming experimental show, as well the general success of events such as Oakland’s Art Murmur and First Fridays. If anything, the event reinforced the idea that the Bay Area is a spot ripe for innovation in art institutions.