Walking down the grand staircase of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s thirty-year-old East Building, I realized I wasn’t sure what to expect of Friday night’s first-ever Monster Drawing Rally. But it wasn’t this.
The room was pulsing, the walls awash in undulating colors that shifted from blue to pink to yellow. A DJ in a corner blared a remix of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The only thing missing for a proper dance party was a smoke machine.
In the middle of the room, a horseshoe of white folding tables held twenty-three artists, heads bowed in deep concentration, working furiously. On the other side, hundreds of spectators circled slowly about, jostling one another, pointing, taking pictures, watching the artists work.
“You have to work your way in if you want to see,” I heard one guest say.
A speaker crackled with an announcement—ten minutes remained in the round, then five. It felt like some sort of surreal artistic competition, not an ecumenical artistic benefit. The surprise was exciting.
The concept for Monster Drawing is simple: Artists—in this case, seventy-two—draw in public for a set amount of time. There are multiple rounds. Each piece they finish costs $50. People purchase the art on the spot. All proceeds benefit the museum. It is a ticketed event, and the allotment of eight-hundred tickets sold out well in advance.
The model comes from Southern Exposure, a San Francisco nonprofit, and has been adopted by art programs and museums across the nation. Raleigh added its own spin with food trucks, collaborations with local breweries, and an interactive community art project funded by Flight, where guests drew monster eyes on a wide, white canvas.
As the first round of drawing ended, the crowd turned into a throng, actually chasing the pieces from the tables where they’d been made to the walls where they were hung. The range was impressive—sketches in ink and marker, watercolor paintings, paper cutouts, still lifes, and portraits. There were even several lovely odes to the governor: “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Pat McCrory is a JACK-ASS,” one proclaimed.
At one point, someone announced, “If anybody has work number 8-1, somebody has already paid for that, and you yanked it off the wall.” The room filled with incredulous “Oohs,” but Christin Hardy just laughed. A graphic designer for the museum who had been helping with purchases all night, she’d already been duped by one crafty collector.
If more than one person wanted any given piece, they all drew cards from a deck, and the highest card won. At times, the process was so hectic it felt like the stereotypical floor of a stock exchange. According to Hardy, two women had been vying for the same work when one told Hardy the other purchaser had bowed out. That wasn’t exactly true.
“It is like a watering hole in the dry season over there,” Hardy told me. “Everyone is after these pieces of art.”
Art collecting can be cutthroat, and art collecting can seem daunting. For Julia Rice, the director of N.C. State’s Design Lab for K–12 education, the event helped upend that notion by making art feel accessible.
“Art isn’t about right or wrong; it’s about what you like and what moves you,” Rice said.
To wit, for the same price, you could buy a piece from an up-and-coming artist (the youngest, Max McMichaels, was nine) or from one of the more familiar locals drawing at the tables—Damian Stamer, whose work is currently on display at the museum, or Paul Friedrich, the Raleigh staple responsible for Man v. Liver and Onion Head Monster.
Rice had been talking with other arts educators and programmers all evening, and they agreed that this event was, at least momentarily, tearing down the perceived divider between the real word and the art world.
“That is really meaningful fundraising,” Rice said. “Anytime you’re trying to fundraise you really need to be able to engage, you need to be able to create meaning for [the community], something that they’re proud to be a part of.”
At the tables, trying to watch an artist draw often felt like trying to get that front-row space at a packed concert, elbows and all. Artist David Eichenberger came prepared for the crowd.
“I had my own headphones. I had my bandana pulled down low over my eyes,” he said later. “I didn’t really notice that many people until I looked up and thought, ‘OK, gotta look back down.’”
I ran into Brandon Hluck, who purchased a piece of Eichenberger’s art. He had never heard of Eichenberger but was interested in the strangeness of the public-drawing process.
“I thought that if I was an artist, I would just come in wearing headphones. So I walk in, and the first person I see wearing headphones is this guy. I see his art, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god,’” Hluck said. “It was just many positive bits of energy that came together.”
Many positive bits of energy coming together—I guess that’s how you could describe the event itself and, at its best, the Triangle’s art scene. Where there once were empty walls and open storefronts, there’s now a convergence of local artists, citizen-organized funds, museums, galleries, art collectives, and even landlords working together to fill in those blanks and make the city and its art more vibrant and inclusive. A decade ago, for instance, could you have imagined a party like this in the state’s art museum, where local artists and the big institution were in cahoots? Not really.
Sometimes, even the process can be pretty.