Overnight at the DMA, I Chill with Tlaloc the Rain God, Who Kindly Doesn't Eat Me

overnight_DMA.jpg
Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art
Locked overnight in a museum with an Aztec god and his sabre-toothed frog minions: Yeah, you now how this movie ends.
On the first Saturday after Halloween, I woke up next to a case of bear masks and made sure nothing looked like it had moved while I slept. I survived a night at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Last Friday the DMA hosted Overnight at the DMA, the newest addition to the DMA Friends program. The DMA launched its Friends program, the first free museum membership program in the country, in January. Friends earn points by attending lectures or checking in at galleries and exhibits or showing up to other events. "All free events," says Kimberly Daniell, the DMA's public relations manager. "You don't need to pay anything to earn points."

If you're a really gung-ho Friend, you can score up to 5,000 points on an event-heavy night. The points count toward special perks, like discounts at the gift shop, depending on how many you cash in. Overnight at the DMA cost 100,000 points, which broke the bank for a lot of the attendees. From 7 p.m. Friday until 9 a.m. Saturday, 24 Friends and 23 staff members (only five of them staying overnight) would be the only people in the museum. (If those numbers sound a bit skewed, remember that this was the first night, and 100K is a lot of Friends points.)

"The whole thing sounds like a lot of fun," I kept repeating to myself as I walked in, and not at all like the setup of an elaborate mass murder plot. I never saw Night at the Museum. In my head the script that plays out when you get a bunch of strangers overnight in a cavernous building is for a horror movie. One that's wildly inappropriate for families.

Our tour began at the entrance to the Ancient American Art wing, on the balcony in front of a massive head of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed rain god of the Aztecs who looks down at the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures covering the cafe windows. If we decided to stay up until lights out, instead of retreating to a quiet area on another floor, then we'd come back here around 2 a.m. to roll out sleeping bags in front of Tlaloc. Since the end of the rainy season was coinciding with All Saints' Day, everything was spiritually shifty and ominous. So most of the tour, thoroughly hosted by the DMA's newest hire, Kimberly Jones, focused on human sacrifice. And a bit on hallucinogenic snails.

The staff has been tinkering with ways to make interacting with the museum more lively, and their first effort was to get our heart rates jacked up. We split into groups and took turns rolling three giant dice: one designated a gallery, one a type of work to look for (something with water, something gold, etc.) and one gave a task to do with or at the piece we find. Retitle, sketch, attach a thought bubble and take photo. The point was whoever got the most in 30 minutes won. Thirty minutes during which we would all be split up running through the different galleries, I thought. If the night takes an R-rated turn, it's going to start now. Then I ran off to find an Asian work with an animal and make up a noise for it.

Despite our sprinting, my team was bested by four college freshmen scattered through UT Dallas, Texas A&M and UT Austin. We got five, they got 10. I suspect they were less discerning about the artworks they chose (we tried to show rarefied taste in our selections) or maybe their knees just work better. Maybe I need to be less cutthroat with strangers.

The most mentally taxing challenge the DMA staff doled out to us they coyly called "Provocative Comparisons." In Decorative Arts and Design, each team had to concoct a love story between two randomly assigned works, then attempt to build their potential offspring out of a bag of cups, cardboard and foil.

It was the sort of assignment you'd give to kindergartners if you thought they could describe the romance between an ornate cupboard and a serving dish. Because the sort of people who would voluntarily choose to spend a Friday night in a museum tend to be decent, considerate folks, no one went into great detail to describe the physical coupling that would make an urn-gate baby. My sidekick and I got a cone-shaped office chair and wall clock ringed with pegs and balls. Had anyone asked, we could have described the coitus that produced the whirligig offspring we built out of taped-up colored pencils, but no one was curious. We did win a sketchbook and some postcards for it, though.

There were times in the night that felt more like a field trip. The lot of us sat cross-legged in the Reves Collection to listen to recordings of staff members who saw the ghost of benefactor Emery Reves. (Mr. Reves apparently burns display candles, chats with unsuspecting visitors, sets off motion alarms and once, inexplicably, was a thin black creature scurrying across the floor.) The tour through the Jim Hodges exhibition also had game-like aspects but getting swept up there was easy and joyous.

If the Overnight is a success -- based on attendee feedback, cost benefit analysis, all that jazz -- it'll be another year before it returns. Aside from planning logistics, it's going to take awhile for more Friends to hit the 100,000-point mark.

Yes, I had nightmares about being trapped in a villainous museum while I was actually in a sleeping bag in a museum. But I woke up unscathed and entertained. And I can say I spent the night with a rain god.


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Dallas Museum of Art

1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas, TX

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