Making a Scene: The Brooklyn Artists Ball Honors Its Own
For its third-annual Brooklyn Artists Ball, which took place last Wednesday, The Brooklyn Museum procured a decidedly self-referential theme to celebrate the influence and creativity of Brooklyn artists, who in the words of the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, are “a cornerstone of the institution.”
In its first two years, celebrity honorees Sarah Jessica Parker and Marisa Tomei initiated a glamorous impression, but in keeping with the event’s focus on Brooklyn, the museum mounted a tribute to one of its own. Trustee Barbara Knowles Debs received the Augustus Graham Medal — the museum’s highest honor — for her continued support in presenting “groundbreaking” exhibitions, in addition to honoring three Brooklyn-based artists — Vik Muniz, Wangechi Mutu, and Roxy Paine — who all received the Asher B. Durand Award.
The Brooklyn Museum, along with numerous other New York institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, is part of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), occupying land or buildings owned by the City of New York and consequently, receives a portion of its funding from the city. The Brooklyn Artists Ball is the museum’s biggest fundraiser, with tickets for this year’s gala ranging in price from $1,000 to $50,000.
Although the museum was closed, two exhibitions remained on view throughout the evening: Gravity & Grace – Monumental Works by El Anatsui — a collection of large installation art principally consisting of found materials, such as cans or bottle caps which could be found on the fifth floor, and on the fourth floor, John Singer Sargent’s watercolor works dominated which were mostly inspired by Venice and the Riviera. An eclectic mix of guests, dressed in all manners of personal style you would expect from the art crowd, enjoyed an open bar cocktail reception and hors d’oeuvres in the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Glass Pavilion. For many of the party-goers, this was not their first Brooklyn Artists Ball, with a history of supporting the museum predating the Brooklyn art scene’s recent rise to eminence as it is known today. Attendees were also treated to custom nail art manicures from Vanity Projects, a spirited performance by radical queer feminist art collective Go! PushPops involving nipple tape and glitter, and a pop-up photo booth courtesy of Brooklyn-based Refinery 29.
By 9 p.m., dinner on the third floor was announced, as the crowd migrated upstairs to the majestic Beaux-Arts Court to take a seat at one of the 40-foot-long, custom-made “table environments” created for the occasion by a select group of Brooklyn artists: Njideka Akunyili, Daniel Arsham, Jules de Balincourt, FAILE, Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, Joey Frank, Jacob Hashimoto, Steven and William Ladd, Emily Noelle Lambert, Fernando Mastrangelo, Navin June Norling, José Parlá, Analia Segal, Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Max Toth, and Lan Tuazon. The curator responsible for overseeing the table centerpieces, Amanda Schneider said, “We chose a mix of artists whose names we know and those who are just becoming known and would deliver something really spectacular for the occasion.” And deliver they did.
Performance artist pair Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw engineered a silver aluminum alloy truss system to stage their own dinner party eight feet above “everyone else’s dinner party,” entitled The Supra-Siddidy. Donning oversized caricature headdresses of their own likeness, Catron and Outlaw glided along the length of the elevated track as an assistant, wearing a white Morphsuit, manually operated a pulley wheel. Food is a recurring staple of their provocative, irreverent and highly inventive work, so their “tongue-in-cheek” dinner party parody feast of giant paper carrots and turkeys seemed appropriate enough, if not inevitable. Catron and Outlaw were thrilled to be making their Brooklyn Artists Ball debut, and hold the museum in high esteem, “The Brooklyn Museum understands the heartbeat of Brooklyn — what’s going on here and how to showcase it,” Catron said. The museum itself embodies the inextricable relationship between Brooklyn and its artists, changing its name from Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997 to The Brooklyn Museum in 2004. The new direction of Wednesday night’s Ball signifies the cultural prominence of the borough itself that has directly resulted from its burgeoning arts scene.
Twenty-year Brooklyn resident Alison Elizabeth Taylor, who had attended last year’s gala, expressed similar affinities: “To have something of this caliber in Brooklyn is a cause for celebration already.” After seeing the list of participating artists, Taylor decided to accept her invitation from the museum, and whilst grinning said, “It was a sneaky way to get marquetry into a museum.” Her signature marquetry, or intarsia wood inlay, typically considered little more than decorative, takes on a distinctly contemporary fine art character. Creating the displays was a “special challenge” for Taylor, transforming two-dimensional forms into three-dimensional free-standing statuettes. Wood veneer panels depict visual allusions to different eras and cultures in reference to how The Brooklyn Museum is an “encyclopedic museum.” In its inception, The Brooklyn Museum had already imagined its eminence, originally designed to be four times larger than its actually size, but nonetheless, at 560,000 square feet, the museum holds New York City’s second largest art collection, with roughly 1.5 million works
Iconographic collaborators, Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, together known as FAILE, spent a month creating the several hundred hand-painted and silk-screened wood pallets and blocks that constituted their tabletop, in what Miller describes as “an urban tapestry bringing together disparate parts into a whole.” Five colorful, paneled, wood carved wheels, resembling monoliths, adorned the table’s length, mirroring the fragmented collage and pop-art aesthetic of the base block pieces. Miller, who lives nearby, describes a personal connection to the museum, “it defines our neighborhood and my family; my daughter has her favorite painting that she has to see whenever we’re here.” Speaking to Brooklyn’s larger role in relation to the city Miller added, “Everything that I’m excited about happens to be here; it’s exciting to be a part of Brooklyn today and to be a part of that story.”
In the past 20 years, isolated enclaves of creatives have expanded into a community of artists that now essentially define everything that has come to be commonly associated with Brooklyn’s civic identity and urban character. From its industrial foundations, Brooklyn is a municipal bricolage, architecturally and ethnically diverse, and ultimately, imbued with an intoxicatingly charming sense of authenticity that fuels as much as it eludes artistic ambition. Each new studio, gallery or multiuse warehouse (of the few that still exist) is a harbinger for the next, as a growing number of artists ensconce themselves in the rapidly rising artistic status of Brooklyn.
For Cuban artist José Parlá, the significance of The Brooklyn Museum cannot be overstated, “what makes a city a city is its museum, and Brooklyn has its own grand museum.” Just this past December, Parlá was commissioned to create a 70-foot long mural for the Barclays Center, so when he received a similar call to action from the museum a few months ago, of course, he said yes. Parlá’s table was rich with symbolism, paying homage to a Cuban deity, Eshu-Elegba, or the “Prankster Spirit.” White paper, featuring the calligraphic strokes of Parlá’s gestural movement, flanked bowls of fruit, toys and candy that were arranged as alters. Parlá recounted the mythology of Eshu-Elegba as a gatekeeper in charge of doors or pathways, and said, “It’s important to the Ball tonight that donors are opening doors, keeping them open to the right path.”
Attendees then returned back downstairs to an after-party that included dessert and dancing amid an installation created especially for the event by artist Luis Gispert, as well as music by DJ Atlanta De Cadenet Taylor and the stylish, matching twosome of Andrew Andrew. This year’s Ball demonstrates how the Brooklyn Museum’s familiarity manifests an uncommon symbiosis between an arts institution and its surrounding local community of artists. Perhaps even more significantly, as a cultural institution, the museum is proving itself relevant to Brooklyn’s current fame, manifesting the creative convergence from which its reputation derives, and powerfully reflecting the borough’s official motto: “Unity makes strength.”
Featured image: Artists Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw. Photo by Eric Weiss.