By Irene Lacher Posted May 29, 2007, 12:52 PM EDT
As development events manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art,Vanessa Gonzalez is charged with the steep task of coming up withgroundbreaking event ideas that befit the works contained in themuseum’s halls. We talked to her about how she works with innovativeartists—and navigates nonprofit limitations—to make it happen. (Andall this in six-inch platform heels on event night.)
Title: Development Events Manager, Museum of Contemporary Art
What She Does: Gonzalez produces events for the museum’s three venues, artists’ dinners, and off-site special events. She’s also responsible for MOCA’s largest fund-raising event of the year, the annual gala. She designs and produces 30 to 40 events for 30 to 6,000 guests.
Staff: “One part-time assistant, believe it or not.”
Career Path: Gonzalez graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a B.A. in theater. She spent two years in England, where she worked on the opening of Ian Schrager’s boutique hotel St. Martins Lane in London. “It was more like we were trying to produce a fashion show than open a hotel,” she says. “It was tons of fun, opening an American hotel in Europe.” In 2000, she moved back to Los Angeles and started at MOCA, supervising the box offi ce; she has spent the past fi ve years doing events. “The box office and events department work very closely. I just fell into events and I really enjoyed it.”
Where She Grew Up: “I’m a native Angeleno.”
Biggest Job Challenge: “Finding the time to take a vacation. There’s always an event to produce. It’s a personal challenge, fi nding balance between my personal and professional lives. It’s not like I can take off for long periods of time and hope for the best.”
Style Strategy: “I’m known for wearing the most outrageous outfi ts. I’ll show up to an event in six-inch platforms and work straight through the event. I have to be fashionable because I’m part of the [institution’s] image.”
Proudest Career Moment: “I like to refer to it as my proudest ego moment: standing in line for another organization’s event and hearing a guy tell a couple in front of us that he was leaving and not to bother wasting their time. He said, ‘It sucks in there. If you want to go to a good party, go to the MOCA events. They know how to throw a fun party.’ I cracked up.”
Favorite Designer: “Vivienne Westwood. I absolutely adore her. I try to go back to London once a year, and when I go, I stock up.”
What She Wanted To Be as a Child: “An actress. It was always something involved in production. I was five years old and I was creating a concert in my room and directing my cousins where the stuffed animals needed to go.”
Do museums bear a bigger burden tocreate events that push the boundaries of design? Do people come toyour events with higher expectations?
No, actually I believe it’s quite the opposite. When designing events in a nonprofit environment,
there’sa nonprofit model. Because we rely heavily on the support of ourdonors, there’s a sense of responsibility to both our donors and theinstitution. So every event needs to make sense, and we’re consciousofthe expense. I think most people know, coming to a nonprofit event,that you’re not going to expect something that’s extremely lavish.
There’s a difference between lavish and fresh and new.
Absolutely. That’s the great thing about our events: They will always be fresh and new because you’re dealing with different artists and drawing from their work. The venue may remain the same, but the creative vision changes. Therefore, each event will feel distinctive regardless of its setting. Creativity and energy play a critical role in bringing about successful and memorable events that can be talked about long after attending.
Where do artists fit into your event-planning food chain?
I’m very fortunate to be able to work with some of the most creative individuals in this field. Recently, I had the pleasure of working closely with Brooke Hodge, our curator of architecture and design, on the “Skin & Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” event. She suggested that we work with a couple of young designers and architects [Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues], and they added immensely to the overall look and feel of the event design.
That event was pegged to a show. But when you do your annual gala, it can be more amorphous.
Eighty-five percent of the events I do are pegged to a show—the exhibition openings, the private receptions. Even the off-site special events I may do in a donor’s home are associated with honoring or celebrating an artist, their work, or an opening. Even when a gala isn’t pegged to an artist, we’re working with creative individuals. For the gala honoring [major donor and trustee] Dallas Price-Van Breda, we worked with [laser artist] Hiro Yamagata.
How did his involvement come about?
Paul Schimmel, our chief curator, suggested him to Dallas, and Hiro is a good friend of Dallas’s. It was curatorial-inspired, and Dallas accepted it because she admires his work.
Was the event designed around his installation, or was his installation worked into the design of the event?
What Hiro does is he goes into a building and sets up thousands of refl ectors to shoot out these lasers, so he encompasses the room. He comes into a space and looks at it and designs how he’s going to install the piece, so he did it based on the design of our building in the dinner area [at the Geffen Contemporary].
How do you deal with the long lines on Grand Avenue for events at the downtown building?
We started staffi ng the line with our crew [of 20 people who work in development]. I have them walk down the line and talk to our members and engage them. And I think they like that, because they feel they’re not alone. They’re all the way down the street, but they’re being reassured that they’re going to get in. [The staff makes] sure they have the invitation to go to the membership table, so people don’t wait in line and then realize they don’t have their invitation and have to step out of line. We’re anticipating challenges so that once people get to the doors, they’re ready, they know what to do, and they can just go in.
Is your approach to entertainment similar to your approach to design? Do you look for entertainers who aren’t among the usual suspects?
The entertainment element applies more to the members’ opening. The MOCA openings that have drawn the younger art community, I think we were able to target that group by marketing to them through music. Introducing a contemporary—and I don’t mean just current, but fashionable—component to entertainment at the members’ openings has now become a hit movement for MOCA. Back in 2005, when I brought in Grand Master Flash for the opening of “Basquiat,” I had no idea it would cause such a sensation. I never expected that 10,000 people would show up. But it was important for me to bring in entertainment that parallels the work, and I knew that Grand Master Flash was one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s idols. So the great thing was that not only was it a huge success for that one evening, but it set a whole new precedent for MOCA openings, and it created a stir within the younger art community, making people more aware of MOCA.
So do you consider it part of your job to stay abreast of cutting-edge music as well as art?
Absolutely. That’s how you target that group. So I go out a lot. I am the true party girl. And I’m very passionate when it comes to music. Even though I like rock ’n’ roll, I try to keep up on what’s out there, what’s new, what’s hot, what people are into right now, because it’s not about bringing in what’s personal to me—it’s about what makes sense to the museum, what makes sense to the exhibition, what makes sense to the artist.