The Rise of the Painting Party

A new type of art school has been spreading across the U.S. recently, but it is neither a state-run institute nor an arts academy.  Rather, it is more along the lines of a service-sector business that promises that a finished “masterpiece” can be made by anyone who knows how to form his or her ABC’s.  Class offerings are autonomous group sessions set up so that the client/student will return home with his/her very own wall-ready canvas to take home.  Students/clients register to make a specific painting, selected from dozens of small,  decorative but very basic acrylic works available at the location as examples, and are then guided through copying said painting stroke-by-stroke with thirty or so others.  Adult students are encouraged to bring a bottle of wine and all are welcome to bring friends (of course); the venue provides the rest.

But is it really art?

The atmosphere is casual and pressure-free, with unbelievably clean studios and upbeat staff members.   In a sense, the sessions have the same appeal as paint-by-number kits and coloring books, but with the added amusement of cheerful company, perhaps alcohol, and the heightened illusion that one is “being creative”.
It is a concept that has proven so popular that two such “schools” operate in Huntsville, AL alone (Spirited Art and SOCA Galleria); one has become a franchise with a second location in Knoxville, TN, and two new locations scheduled to open in Arkansas and Virginia.  Meanwhile, “Paint and Sip” sessions (as many of these gatherings have come to be called) sprout up regularly at museums and other organizations; their popularity has made them a lucrative career option for working artists and an easy means to drawing a crowd for centers of art in small to mid-size cities.

The demographic that seems to enjoy this concept most consists of white-collar professionals who enjoy playing artist but do not really have the time or will to make a career or self-directed hobby of art.  Professional artists are welcome to register for sessions and use their creative skills to modify the example painting as they like. . . but looking over the pictures from various studio locations, it is clear that this rarely happens.  Most of the finished paintings are practically identical and the student/customer base consists largely of companies doing team-building exercises, young professional women and their friends, and group parties.

Though one cannot help but applaud the owners of such places and hosts of such events for turning quick profits on their art degrees, is it really beneficial for public arts awareness and artistic communities to call copying simplified acrylic paintings “art lessons”?  Teacher testimonials on the websites for these schools gush about helping to make art accessible to all and helping everyone to “have fun” making art.  Given the widespread belief that the art world is frigid, elitist, or even irrelevant, it may seem a bit counter-intuitive to question anything that gives the masses a friendly introduction to the arts. . . and yet something remains oddly phony about the “Sip and Paint” Party; namely, the supposition that the art-world equivalent of putting together IKEA furniture or pouring water into a pouch of pre-made cake mix could not only be a placeholder in absence of the “real thing”, but could actually be the real thing.

The questions that this trend raises about art’s role in communities and art education are myriad and all are welcome to add to the discussion in the comment section below!

Christina Wegman is a painter, freelance writer, music teacher, and art event coordinator currently residing in Alabama. Since she hosted her first one-woman art show in 2007, many of her paintings have been displayed in the  “Unique Views of Huntsville” juried competition, and her work has been represented by several galleries and organizations. Born in Los Angeles, California, she has traveled widely throughout Europe and studied in both the U.S. and Canada, where she chronicled some of her thoughts on life and culture at Un Portrait De La Vie Moderne: A Culture Blog . Her current site is Abstract Träumerei.