In Theme and Tone, Whit Gala Is Circus

October 16, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT

Whitney Museum of American Art fall gala Whitney Museum of American Art Monday, 10.15.01, 7 PM onward
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If you go to enough of them, benefit galas can start to run together. Many are in the same hotel ballrooms, with similar flowers and the same cocktails-dinner-dancing routine. But the Whitney Museum of American Art's events tend to stand out. (Last year's gala had a '30s-inspired “Club Whitney” theme, with a tableau of models and a custom-made El Morocco-style dining room.) You could credit the Madison Avenue museum's still-spunky spirit, but the real source may be event planner Harriet Weintraub, who has produced the museum's fall gala for a number of years, and who specializes in mixing nonprofits with sassy hipster touches and corporate sponsors ready to shell out some marketing cash. For this year's fall gala, the museum brought Alexander Calder's “Calder's Circus” sculptures (part of the museum's permanent collection) into the lobby, and gave the entire gala a big-top feel--from the decor, to the motley mix of guests, to the fairly raucous after-party.

Eventgoers entered the museum through a tented tunnel lined with boxes of animal crackers (mimicking sponsor Target's Warhol-esque ads and event decor) designed by David Beahm Designs. Beahm told us his original decor plans included live performers rappelling off the face of the building while guests arrived, and acrobats performing in the lobby and during dinner. But just as many events are toning down their decor, those plans were scrapped after the September 11 attacks. (In another response to the tragedy, a portion of the event's proceeds are going to the museum's neighborhood fire department.) But even with those omissions, the event was more lavish than most pre-September 11 benefits.

Beahm completely remade the lobby, with white carpet on the floor, red fabric on the walls and Calder's sculpture “The Brass Family” standing in front of a giant red and white bull's-eye (a not-so-subtle Target branding touch). As guests shuffled through, Weintraub served as a ringleader of sorts, directing celebrities and execs from sponsoring companies to pose for photographs in front of a backdrop printed with the logos of the Whitney and sponsors Target and Real Simple magazine. Among the guests: Leonard and Evelyn Lauder, Hearst Magazines honcho Cathy Black, Whitney fave Chuck Close, B-52's frontman Fred Schneider, sitcom-newsperson-cum-Oxygen-newsperson Candace Bergen, and scores of socialites.

For cocktails, guests headed downstairs, where the museum's cafe was filled with red tables and chairs, and a clear tent from Stamford Tent and Party Rental with red poles covered the outside patio. The area was also decorated with strands of lights in red, blue and yellow--colors frequently used by Calder.

For the dining room, Beahm continued with more references to the artist, transforming the third floor gallery into a striking vision in red, with blue and yellow accents. Pieces of red fabric hung on the walls and ceiling, and each table had a centerpiece of either red or yellow dianthus surrounded by decorative custom-made drinking glasses printed with Calder drawings, all placed on tablecloths made of fabric that was made for the event based on a red, blue and yellow Calder print. Bentley Meeker bathed the room in dramatic red light, and shone gobos of Calder line drawings on the walls.

Taste's dinner menu started with yellowfin tuna served with shrimp and avocado rice paper rolls and red and green chili sauce. The main course was poussin with brioche and pecans, served with a Calvados demi-glace, wild rice cranberry pilaf and autumn vegetables.

While those who paid $2,500 for dinner tickets finished eating, a younger crowd who paid $150 started gathering downstairs at the M.A.C. Cosmetics-sponsored after-party (like Target, M.A.C. sponsors lots of fun events--the recent Dreamgirls and Broadway Bares benefit concerts among them). To make the after-party in the downstairs area feel different from the cocktail hour, M.A.C. brought in Calderesque elephant cutouts and stools covered with red and white circus-like material, and filled the tents with brightly colored helium balloons. Bentley Meeker flashed pulsing white lights on the walls, and a performer from the Big Apple Circus showed off an invisible bird in a cage (or maybe he was just whistling) and had guests spinning plates on sticks.

While fashion-designer-cum-DJ Todd Oldham played an energetic, retro mix including selections from Michael Jackson, Donna Summer and En Vogue, both large crowds eventually packed into the party, making it feel a bit like a tiny cirucs car filled with clowns--which is not to denigrate the crowd, which showed off a mix of ages and fashion statement not typically found at more traditional benefits.

The evening also included a special appearance by Sandra Bernhard in bitchy chanteuse mode, who brought her usual mix of raw energy and multilayered sarcasm to two songs and some patter about loving Rod Stewart albums (which left us wondering, in typical Bernhard fashion, does she really love him, or hate him, or hate loving him?). As she surveyed a crowd of young society types in sequins chattering to each other, Bernhard's other target was the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room that no one was talking about. New Yorkers will always care most about plastic surgery, new frocks and making themselves look good, she said. “Even at times like this, it's all about fashion.”

--Chad Kaydo

See more photos of the dinner decor...

See photos of the after-party...

Read our coverage of last year's Whitney gala...

Read our Impresario profile of Harriet Weintraub...

Read about a recent Target event...

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