Art Institute Gala Guests Get Sneak Peek at Modern Wing

Hosting a gala in the Art Institute of Chicago's not-yet-complete modern wing presented a unique set of challenges for event planners.

By Amalie Drury October 29, 2008, 8:00 AM EDT

The Griffin Court dining area in the modern wing

Modern Ball in the Modern Wing
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Chicago’s art and design communities have been eyeing the progress of the new Renzo Piano-designed modern wing at the Art Institute of Chicago since plans for the project came to light in 2005. On Saturday night, some 450 guests attended the first event to be held in the structure, which is still under construction and won’t open to the public for another six months. Dubbed the “Modern Ball in the Modern Wing,” the event raised $200,000 for the Education and Acquisition Fund of the Architecture and Design Society of the Art Institute.

The unfinished state of the building presented a unique set of challenges for the ball's planners. From adhering to strict electrical codes to consulting with the fire department to determine capacities for the areas of the building that were ready to use, co-chairs Karen Hyatt, Carrie Lannon, and Victoria Lautman worked closely with Art Institute personnel and Turner Construction to monitor the constantly changing state of the venue. “We all had to be good sports,” said Lannon. “It was a very integrated process, because one change could mean that many other changes would have to take place accordingly.” For instance, because the new wood floors in the wing have yet to be sealed (and spills could spell disaster), the night featured an all-clear drink menu of white wine, gin, vodka, and white Cosmopolitans.

Dirk Denison, an architect whose firm is currently designing a restaurant that will eventually open in the modern wing, volunteered his services for the design and production of the ball. When guests first stepped into the space, Denison said, he wanted their focus to be on the architecture of the building instead of elaborate decorations. So at the beginning of the night, the Griffin Court main hall area where dinner took place was still in the early stages of setup. “It was a major adjustment when we found out guests would have to enter the event directly into the dining area,” said Denison. “It presented a timing challenge and we needed extra catering staff to make it happen in only an hour, but ultimately it gave us the inspiration for the ‘transformation.’”

While a cocktail hour and an auction of design-related items took place on the second floor, event staff raced to set the tables with black-and-white linens featuring geometric felt shapes and Denison-designed floral arrangements. Inspired by the no-red-wine rule, each place setting included a wine glass filled with red roses and lit by individual battery-operated strands of LED lights. (Candles were another prohibited item.) “The most energy-intensive part of the lights was assembling them the night before,” said Denison. “It took five people about four hours.” 

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