Traditionally, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosts its biggest annual fund-raiser inside the galleries of its Marcel Breuer-designed building. But this year, in a bid to find a less spatially constrained venue and capitalize on its highly anticipated move, the 80-year-old art institution took its fall gala from the Upper East Side to the raw Pier 57, a site adjacent to the Hudson River and within walking distance of its future home in the meatpacking district. The shift downtown allowed the popular event to add more attendees and in turn raise more funds for the new location. Held Wednesday night, the black-tie evening honoring New Yorker art writer Calvin Tomkins for his lifetime achievements was underwritten by the Ritz-Carlton Rewards/JPMorgan as well as AOL and Marchesa, and brought in a record-breaking $3.2 million.
Having just hosted its groundbreaking in May, Gina Rogak, the Whitney's director of special events, said the capacity issues in years past, coupled with the desire to be downtown, prompted the museum committee to seek out new spaces. “We purposefully stayed away from hotels, Chelsea Piers, and other places people have gone to,” she said, noting the Park Avenue Armory was the other option considered.
The sectioned-off, 11,000-square-foot portion of Pier 57 posed a formidable challenge—and creative opportunity—for Bronson van Wyck, who produced the “industrial look” of the gala with David Hawryluk, a project manager in his firm's brand experience division, alongside Rogak and her team of Rachel Arteaga, associate director of special events, and Jessica McCarthy, manager of special events. To marry the design of the space with the Whitney's sensibility, van Wyck devised an elegant and modern aesthetic injected with jewel tones for an evening loosely described as “a little gritty, a little glam.”
According to van Wyck, the party easily could have fit within the confines of a space one-fifteenth of the size, and while the ease of venue provided his crew with latitude to build elements on site, conversely there was that much more ground to cover, not to mention walking for guests. At one point, Rogak joked that the committee had considered renting golf carts to shuttle attendees, including Rachel Feinstein and John Currin, Tom Sachs, Desirée Rogers, Georgina Chapman and Harvey Weinstein, Chuck Close, Michelle Monaghan, and Bar Rafaeli, from cocktails to dinner. Van Wyck was also adamant not to entirely conceal the existing structure. “We're here to raise money without spending too much money, so that's always on our mind,” he said. “But there is a connection between these piers on the West Side and communities of artists—particularly modern and contemporary artists who have worked in industrial spaces like this.”
Not only was the 2011 gala the first of its kind not to take place in a Whitney property, it was also moved up by several weeks due to the timing of the weekend's New York City Wine & Food Festival. According to Rogak, the two organizations engaged in a dialogue to share some of the costs of hosting events at Pier 57. The drawback meant a shorter load-in time—crews worked for about 36 hours, starting Tuesday morning. However, van Wyck explained that because trucks could drive right into the venue, “it was about as smooth as a load-in could get.”
Thanks to its increase in size, 660 guests were seated for dinner (compared with last year's 500) and an additional 200 tickets were sold for the post-dinner Studio Party, which was marked by glittering decor, disco balls, and a bevy of maple trees. The dinner, a mix of sparkling jewel tones, centerpieces in primarily blue and green hues, and live trees that enclosed the area, was van Wyck's idea of playing up counterpoints. “There was so much here that was made by the hands of man that I wanted to have some things made by the hand of nature.”
Van Wyck also worked closely with Marilyn Minter, the gala's guest artist, to align his decor with her aesthetic. Minter's artwork, shown on four large screens in the dining area, was an installation of the artist mixing vodka and silver powder cake decoration infused with glycerin as thickener shot at 2,500 frames per second. (As a reference to the museum, Minter dropped letters spelling “Whitney” into the concoction.) “Working in this exposed space, with its rivets and exposed beams, I went the complete opposite direction and created a kaleidoscopic dream inside a jewel box inside this industrial, urban relic,” he said. “It also connected well with Marilyn's work, which offers social commentary on the surface of beauty.”
At dinner, Olivier Cheng served food he described as “keeping with the seasonal Americana vein.” That translated to a salad of Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms, frisée, white balsamic, pine nuts, and pecorino Grand Old Man; an Alaskan black cod with herb-citrus sauce, farro, and black rice; and a snow pea salad entrée. For dessert, the caterer served warm apple crisp, sour cream ice cream, caramelized chocolate chesnut pudding, and espresso-custard sauce. To cope with the lack of kitchen space or proper drainage, all water was poured into the Hudson River, while other drinks—or “gray water"—were stored in storm drains and disposed of later.