For the past decade, the first Friday night in any month has meant art-gallery open houses in River North. But the first Friday night in September stands apart: the first Friday following Labor Day–when nearly every gallery in the gallery district holds a reception to herald a new exhibition–has evolved into the art world’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve. Like so many eagerly anticipated events (New Year’s Eve, for example), last week’s Big Friday was a bit of a letdown.

This is not to suggest that there was nothing happening. The cognoscenti flocked to the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, for example, where Donald Lipski, a conceptualist who is arguably the most influential sculptor in the country today, was having a one-man show. But art is rarely, if ever, the real attraction on Big Friday. The vast majority of those who attend feign interest in the art but really come to gaze at one another.

An old acquaintance I encountered who had recently returned to town after living in the east for a few years was mourning the passing of the Friday nights in River North he remembered. “You used to come to these things,” he sighed, “and you’d see a real art crowd– people on the edge, with dirt under their fingernails and paint spattered on their boots. Not anymore.”

But even he was a few years behind the times. The art crowd to which he referred was displaced long ago by swarms of ashen-faced, vaguely unhealthy-looking wraiths dressed entirely in black. But now even the funerary-drag clique appears to have abandoned the gallery scene. This year’s crowd was attractive and well-groomed, fresh-faced and prosperous, the sort of people you’d expect to see passing through the lobby of the East Bank Club or Water Tower Place.

We did see a few sullen-looking women with slicked-back hair wearing tight black mini dresses, clocked stockings, and stiletto heels, but not nearly enough of them for his taste. “I come to these events expecting them to be a kind of live-action Robert Palmer video,” he said, “but this might as well be a Wash U. alumni event.” We also noted an absence of hats, something you typically see a lot of at this event.

We saw a gorgeous creature walking east on Superior Street in a backless scarlet sequined sheath and silver sling-back sandals. But those ruby red sequins, combined with her general demeanor and the fact that she was the only African American in sight, led me to believe that she was either (a) lost, or (b) simply passing through on her way to another party. Certainly it wasn’t the party held under the tent on Superior at Orleans.

The annual tent party presented as a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s New Group has gradually become the centerpiece of Big Friday. An attempt to attract potential collectors and budding MCA benefactors, the New Group’s event illustrates in the extreme the change that has come over the gallery scene. The MCA being what it is, one might expect the New Group to represent that elusive avant-garde, but the party attracted the usual earnest and attractive types, and an astonishing number of journalists.

My companion for the evening, a longtime MCA volunteer and auxiliary board member, is a veteran of many such events. She thought the tent party was a pretty good deal at $35 a pop. She also thought the tent-party guests were on the tame side, but that their behavior was just what you’d expect: they complained. “Everybody whines about charity events,” she said, “but even the complainers here sound a little stale.” A man in Oliver Peoples glasses announced rather loudly that after waiting more than half an hour in the food line for his styrofoam-boxed dinner, his chicken breast sandwich was slimy and undercooked and his brownie wasn’t chocolaty enough. A fairly well known sculptor (who could easily pass for a tax attorney) griped about the music. “You’d think that they’d spring for a live band instead of a DJ, even if it is Terri Hemmert,” he said. And a tax attorney (who actually looks quite a bit like the aforementioned sculptor) bitched about the temperature in the tent; he decided to move his chair outside. Considering the lackluster nature of the crowd, the appearance of the Frieda Dean Gallery was a badly needed dose of whimsy.

The Frieda Dean Gallery is not a place, at least not strictly speaking. It is, rather refreshingly (given the general lack), a hat, worn by its eponymous proprietor. Resembling an ecclesiastical miter, the Frieda Dean Gallery is black felt adorned with an intricate rainbowlike design of sequins and glass beads and bearing the legend “Frieda Dean Gallery” embroidered in gold thread. Perched atop the hat are two intersecting slabs of wood that form surfaces on which tiny paintings of acorns are hung.

I was not a bit surprised when Frieda Dean reached into her portfolio and handed me a press release. “This is an art gallery that is worn on the head,” it said. Its fundamental purpose is “to challenge the elitism of established art spaces, namely museums and galleries.”

Frieda Dean said that this marked the gallery’s debut exhibition, “Acorns on Planets,” which would be hanging through October.

She explained that she had “unlearned a lot at the University of Tennessee,” and that she received her true art training in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, from one Freeman Schoolcraft, a sculptor who had been a protege of Lorado Taft and who had taught at both the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. She had displayed her work at other galleries but, like many artists, wished to exert more control over her own fate. “By owning the gallery space, I have curatorship,” says the press release. “I can create and exhibit what’s important to me.”

We asked her how the gallery would operate. Would she simply go out each day and parade up and down Broadway? Frieda Dean admitted that wearing the gallery as a full-time proposition probably wouldn’t work out. “It’d be particularly hard in the wind or the rain,” she said. She planned to maintain a mailing list; much like more conventional enterprises the Frieda Dean Gallery would be open by appointment. One member of the bloated press corps dismissed the Frieda Dean Gallery with a sneer, sniffing “Oh, come on. It’s just a gimmick.”

Perhaps so. Twenty years ago, when Donald Lipski hung paper clips and flip-top tabs and rubber bands from grids of nails on a board and called it Gathering Dust, someone might have said that was a gimmick, too. Frieda Dean may not be the next Donald Lipski, but at least she’s got an idea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.