With Highest Attendance to Date, Watermill Benefit Raises $1.5 Million at Erotic Cabaret-Style Gala

By Jim Shi August 4, 2011, 3:38 PM EDT

Photo: Alice & Chris for BizBash

Serving as the kickoff celebration for the 70th birthday of its founder, Robert Wilson, the Watermill Center's summer benefit on Saturday also saw more patrons than ever before. Some 1,100 guests attended the evening cocktail reception, and 650 remained for the seated dinner, all in all helping to raise nearly $1.5 million in support of the center's year-round art residency and education programs. The sold-out fund-raiser, long reputed for its impressive array of unusual artwork, was this year titled “Voluptuous Panic,” a nod to Mel Gordon's book that chronicles erotica from 1920s Berlin, and drew its usual cross-section of art, fashion, music, and design world elite, including actor Alan Cumming, architect Charles Renfro, Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, and singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. As guests arrived, check-in was simplified this year with the introduction of iPads and the table guest list app Zkipster.

Wilson, who worked with center's directors Jörn Weisbrodt and Sherry Dobbin (who also served as the event's producer) and curators Adi Nachman and Noah Khoshbin, described this year's benefit as “classy extravagant and sizzlingly rejuvenating.”

“It was Jörn who suggested 'Voluptuous Panic,'” said Wilson. “I liked it because it embodied, for me, a certain sense of drama and outbreak from convention.” The same could also be said for the “fearless” dress code. “Doesn't everyone want to be fearless?” Wilson mused. “So we wanted to give them a chance to do exactly that.”

While this year's 25 site-specific installations and performances—each an artist's interpretation of the theme—didn't encourage as much guest interaction as others had in years past, they were no less impressive. From a steamroller navigating around a bed of nearly naked girls bathing in oil and glitter to Ryan McNamara burying himself up to his neck in pine needles and wood, there was no shortage of stimulating, live art. Even the dinner space held colorful, tongue-in-cheek visuals, including an enormous chandelier of balloons, fabric versions of paint cans, packages of sausages, and books, and a paint-splattered floor.

Dinner itself—which included family-style antipasti, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano with 25-year-old balsamic red wine-roasted mushrooms, prosciutto and fresh figs Caprese with heirloom tomatoes and basil, and a grilled butterflied leg of lamb with mint-almond pesto from Olivier Cheng—was a lively affair, with a live auction conducted by Simon de Pury of Phillips de Pury & Company and Wainwright singing a special birthday song for Wilson.

“I want Watermill to have an impact on young people and artists beyond my lifetime,” Wilson said. The founder also explained how each year the center challenges itself to present a unique theme and look for the benefit. “Every year we try to reinvent ourselves. If you know what you are doing, there's no reason to do [the same idea year after year].”

Beyond the benefit, the multicity celebration of Wilson's 70th includes events planned for Milan on September 19, Berlin on September 29, New York City on October 4, and Paris on November 4.

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