On a midweek afternoon in March, Melissa Feldman, an event planner specializing in art-world soirées, is a $15 cab ride from her Chelsea office. She's made the trip to Battery Park City for a walk-through of developer Bruce Ratner's Embassy Suites Hotel -- at this point still a construction site -- and has been forced by circumstance into accessorizing her army-green Prada backpack and silver Nikes with a standard-issue hard hat.
Deftly side-stepping two-by-fours, Feldman charges through the shell of the entrance hall, where a coterie of construction workers is lunching, and inspects the side ballrooms and the future Larry Forgione restaurant. When she climbs up the frozen escalator amidst a grinding concert of space heaters, it suddenly becomes clear why Feldman is here: Above the atrium looms an eleven-story-high Sol LeWitt wall drawing of interweaving royal-blue and violet swirls. Ratner, the multimillionaire real-estate mogul and CEO of the Forest City Ratner Companies, is also a committed patron of the arts, and he's treating the hotel as a contemporary-art gallery, working with the Public Art Fund to commission lithographs from three artists of the moment -- Elizabeth Peyton, Sara Sosnowy, and Mary Heilmann -- to be hung in every guest room, and to select a few Lichtensteins, Schnabels, and Kabakovs for the common spaces. He's also offered to merge the hotel's opening celebration with the fund's annual gala, which is where Melissa Feldman comes in.
For the past two years, Feldman has produced the Public Art Fund's benefit at the Central Park Boathouse, and she has been asked to outdo herself again. As she navigates through the clutter, she's picturing the moment three months from now when the Snapple containers and sawdust will have given way to a rarefied gathering of 450 art patrons in their best black suits and Gucci sheaths.
This kind of evening, pumped with cash and cachet, is typical of the city's burgeoning art scene, in which newly minted benefactors -- from Internet millionaires with TriBeCa lofts to furnish to corporate entities seeking downtown cred -- vie to rub elbows with suddenly glamorous painters, sculptors, and video artists. And Feldman's events are a prime point of entry. In the past season alone, her company, MF Productions, has organized the opening party for the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum as well as galas for the Dia Center for the Arts, the Kitchen, and Yaddo, just to name a few. To the art world, she is like the creative-event producer Robert Isabell with the Rolodex of Über-publicist Peggy Siegal and the high-school connections of Alexandra von Furstenberg. (Harper's Bazaar editor Kate Betts and philanthropist Melissa Soros are childhood pals.) Says Hamish Bowles, editor-at-large of Vogue, who co-chaired a gala Feldman threw for the New York City Opera, "Melissa is the linchpin."
Asking an A-list crowd to pencil a Battery Park City evening into their Palm Pilots in the name of art is not as challenging as it once was. Gone are the somnolent years of the early nineties, when "art party" conjured up images of cramped gallery openings or struggling artists convening at someone's loft to consume white wine from plastic cups and white powder from bathroom counters. With the economy revving like the eighties, the art market is also back to eighties-style extravagance, from the inflated price tags to the high-velocity socializing. Any night of the week there are highbrow evenings to attend, where patrons pay up to $10,000 a table to dine in the presence of art-world luminaries.
Style arbiters who once cared only for starlets and ladies-who-lunch have found a fresh band of celebrities in artists who couldn't afford their rents in Williamsburg five years ago. Pretty young painters like Cecily Brown, Inka Essenhigh, and Anh Duong are touted as much for their sex appeal as for their work. Gallerists like Andrea Rosen and curators like Yvonne Force (her art-advisory company, Yvonne Force, Inc., is backed by Laurance Rockefeller), along with scuptor Rachel Feinstein (wife of art-world darling John Currin) and the ubiquitous Schnabel girls, are touted as new-millennium socialites. The young art crew even has its own paparazza, Jessica Craig-Martin, the British scenester-cum-photographer whom Anna Wintour collared to shoot for the party pages of Vogue two years ago. Soon, her artist friends were wedged between Brooke de Ocampo and Aerin Lauder in the society roundups. "Once they appeared in one magazine, they started appearing everywhere," Craig-Martin remarks. And, just as happens to the boldface names of old, when the new art stars' personal lives get messy -- as Brown's did this winter, when her ex-boyfriend attempted suicide -- they end up on "Page Six."
"A lot of style influence is coming from the art world now. There's been a seismic shift," says Hamish Bowles. "The difference is where the new money is coming from. Lots of those young American Psycho-era guys wanted to be living in the Dakota in oak-paneled rooms that Peter Marino had done for them. With so much money now coming from the Internet, I think that this generation doesn't feel it has any credentials to establish in that traditional way. They're looking instead to what is about now and tomorrow, and contemporary art is a sexy and exciting way to channel those energies."
"Artists are making money for a change," adds Amy Sacco, the modelesque owner of the nightly art-world salon Lot 61. "I don't think young artists were dressing in all this fabulous, expensive clothing -- neither was I -- five years ago." (Not that they pay for it: Painter Damian Loeb's wardrobe for Oscar week was provided, movie-star-style, by Burberry; Sacco herself has been dressed by Gucci and Helmut Lang.) "It's a very glamorous time," Sacco continues. "If you look back to the last time the economy was doing really well, that's when the Warhols were eating at Mr. Chow's every night, and they had wealthy patrons falling all over them. There are the popular kids right now: Cecily, Rachel, Damian, Matthew Barney. It's back to that eighties kind of rock-star glamour." Even Greed Decade stalwarts like Mary Boone have returned with a vengeance, trailing a new string of young talent and prompting sighs of discontent from some in the industry. ("The harbinger of doom," snipes one gallerist. "If Mary Boone's around, you know the crash is coming.")
And into the frenzy, guest list in hand, has stepped Melissa Feldman, 37, who is singularly well equipped to fill a brand-new and yawning void: giving the art stars and those who support them a place to act like, well, stars.
You can find Melissa Feldman at least once a day at Bottino -- the West Chelsea restaurant that has become the Michael's of the art world. (Feldman is such a fixture that she's planning a vacation to Greece with the maître d'.) As she settles into her café table for some Marlboro Mediums and a glass of Gavi, Feldman identifies the players in a mock-documentary deadpan: Seated to her left is Michelle Reyes, the director of the Andrea Rosen gallery, who is married to the artist Sean Landers. In the corner are the owners of the gallery Metro Pictures, with Anne Pasternak of the public art nonprofit Creative Time and Bruce Wolmer, the editor of Art & Auction. "Love the vintage Courrèges," she says to an arriving Vogue photo editor. Feldman herself is wearing a black dress under a light-pink Burberry raincoat in honor of an earlier power lunch at Swifty's to plan next year's City Opera event. She spots one of Bottino's owners. "You're going to get a call from Tom Beller about a book party," she tells him. "Elle is throwing it. If you have something booked, you'll want to change it. I'm just helping him out as a friend." She turns her attention to her glass, but not for long. She eyes Paul Judelson from the I-20 Gallery: "Did you get our fax about the Public Art Fund event? It should be really nice."
In reality, a nice party is not enough for Feldman's clients. She has to guarantee that the institution being fêted appears appropriately cutting-edge -- a challenge the planners of, say, the annual Sloan-Kettering gala don't have to contend with -- but at the same time worthy of support from potential patrons who receive literally hundreds of solicitations a year. Feldman is entrusted with not only image-making but also her clients' fiscal health; the bounty from just one party often provides more than half an institution's annual budget. For a six-month retainer (the average time it takes to organize an event), Feldman's creative fee ranges from $30,000 to $50,000, but the take is several times the service charge. The Yaddo Centennial Celebration, for example, netted more than $200,000 after expenses. This year's pot from the Public Art Fund's annual gala totaled $325,000 -- equal to all its federal, city, and state funding combined.
It's no surprise, then, that lower-profile institutions like the Bronx Museum of the Arts come calling on Feldman for advice on how to crack the benefit universe. After an initial attempt to host intime benefit dinners at Chelsea galleries fizzled, the museum's executive director, Jenny Dixon, turned desperately to Feldman. "Her connections to the art community were key," says Dixon. "When the first plan didn't work, she simply remodeled it." Feldman's idea was to hold the evening at Lot 61 and to make it more of a meet-and-greet cocktail party than a formal dinner. The image was casual, right down to the bright-orange invitations that offered "friend" tickets for only $150. "It still was hard," Feldman confesses. "We went to the Chelsea art community and basically strong-armed them into buying tickets."
On the night of the event, even though there were five other art-related parties that same evening, the restaurant was swarming with a miraculous mix of guests -- Tiffany Dubin, Jane Holzer (Baby Jane of Warhol fame), and painter Alexis Rockman were there. Even Mary Boone made an appearance. "Carol Greene of Greene Naftali gallery, critic Dan Cameron," says Feldman, ticking off a list of attendees. "Danny Simmons -- he's Russell Simmons's brother and runs the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. That was my idea," she notes. "One of my best friends is Russell Simmons's attorney."