Whitney Gala Turns Guests Into Artists

The gala encouraged guests to be artists for the night by sketching nude models and drawing on canvas tablecloths.

By Beth Kormanik October 28, 2013, 7:15 AM EDT

Recreating a life drawing class, artists sketched nude models. Extra easels were set up for guests to create their own sketches.

Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash

At this year's Whitney Museum of American Art Gala, guests walked into an artist's studio, complete with nude models posing for sketches, canvas tablecloths anyone could drawn on, and works from the Whitney's collection projected onto screens throughout the space.

“We were trying to emphasize the art-making process,” said Gina Rogak, the museum's director of special events. “It's all designed to get our guests to be artists for the night.”

That the evening was going as planned—and happening at all—was a triumph considering the experience last year, when destruction from Hurricane Sandy caused the Whitney to cancel its planned gala at Pier 57 and reschedule it at the museum itself six weeks later with a new layout and decor.

This year, Rogak sought a venue away from the water and selected Skylight at Moynihan Station, where the museum had hosted its Art Party in May. The raw space was a blank canvas in itself.

“The idea was being inside the artist's studio, and that was exciting to us,” said David Stark, who produced the event. “Rather than try to transform it into the Plaza ballroom, we wanted to work with the space.”

That meant using materials familiar to artists, from paintbrushes and sketch pads to finished product. For the step-and-repeat, guests posed in front of a reproduction of a drawing of the Hollywood sign by the evening's honored artist, Ed Ruscha. “It's lovely he was gracious enough to let us use [it],” Stark said. “It's like stepping into the drawing.”

In the reception space, the centerpiece was a mountain of Louis Vuitton luggage assembled on a theater-in-the-round stage that served as a backdrop for four nude models who posed for a life drawing class. While the gala had artists sketching at easels, extra stations were set up for guests—which included many artists—to draw.

As guests moved into the dining room, the eye was drawn upward to rows of hanging canvas stretchers that hung from the ceiling. On the tables, sketch pads at each seat served as place cards and menus. Centerpieces of silver paint cans in various sizes were rimmed in complementing colors with drips coming down the sides. Some held votives or bread sticks while others contained art materials such as Sharpies that guests were encouraged to use on the canvas tablecloths or in their sketch pads. The table numbers also were placed on paint cans.

The gala wove sponsor Louis Vuitton into the event in a number of ways, all of which Rogak described as “organic.”

“It takes a lot of brainstorming on how we will celebrate the artist and give the sponsor visibility,” Rogak said. “Louis Vuitton was not looking to stamp us in a major way. They didn't want it to be a corporate event. They were looking for subtle ways to be incorporated into the event.”

In addition to the luggage centerpiece in the reception space, the luxury fashion house was represented by two bellman welcoming guests at the entrance, a photo booth that had prop signs with the brand's logo, and glitter tattoos of the logo offered in several colors.

About 570 guests attended the gala, which Rogak said is a high count for the event. The evening raised $2.75 million and is still accepting post-event donations.

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