"Melissa knows more people than anyone in the world," says Pippa Cohen, who once worked as the director of MF Productions and is now an independent art consultant. "I've been to Paris with her, and she'll run into people. In Venice, she knows everyone. And she doesn't have stupid friends."
Sands Point, Long Island, where Feldman grew up, may be an hour on the Long Island Expressway from the cobblestones of SoHo, but Feldman came to the art world early. Her father, who owned a lumber company (he died when she was in high school), and her mother, an antiques dealer, were patrons of the arts who filled their Tudor home -- the former doctor's house on the Guggenheim estate -- with friends' paintings. At Choate, she gained a reputation for socializing that was to prove prophetic. "She was the ringleader of the dorm," remembers Kate Betts. "Her room was a kind of social center. She just had this great energy. She still does."
In her junior year at NYU, Feldman landed a coveted if lowly position as the front-desk girl for the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli and at night mixed with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf at Area and Paradise Garage. Feeling like a well-schooled veteran at the age of 24, she decided to try her hand as a gallerist and used the money she had inherited from her father to move abroad and set up shop in Florence. It didn't last; she returned to New York after two years. Ever the entrepreneur, Feldman smuggled in a trunk of Alighiero e Boetti tapestries and drawings she'd bought with funds on loan from her mother and acted as a mini-dealer, hosting private showings in her SoHo loft.
In 1992, Larry Gagosian hired her for his new space on Wooster Street, once again as the front-desk girl. While helping to organize exhibitions for Richard Serra and Walter de Maria, Feldman also began to arrange the gallery's events, like a bash at Nell's to welcome painter Peter Halley into Gagosian's stable. The social scene proved addictive. "When it came down to it, selling art wasn't what I wanted to do all day," confesses Feldman. "To be a successful art dealer you have to be out schmoozing 24-7. I don't have that kind of personality; I like working behind the scenes." She pauses. "Now, ironically, we sell art at every event we do."
Her interest in party planning piqued, Feldman called up Anne Livet of Livet Reichard -- the first event-planning firm to mine the art world -- who immediately hired her for an Art Against aids event in Venice. "They needed someone who knew the art world and who knew Italian," Feldman recalls. "We did a dinner for 500 chaired by Marella Agnelli" -- wife of Gianni Agnelli, president of Fiat -- "who is basically the queen of Italy. I didn't sleep for a month, but it netted over $1 million."
After directing events for the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery at the Guggenheim and the inauguration of the American Center in Paris, Feldman decided, once again, to strike out on her own. She began with the opening-night party for an exhibition of the sculptor Mark di Suvero's work at the 1995 Venice Biennale. A valentine-themed party for Creative Time, its first major fund-raising effort, followed. She cajoled 150 artists into creating original valentines, which were then raffled off. William Wegman supplied a cartoonish drawing of a love story, Kiki Smith a Japanese-paper vagina sculpture, David Salle a small painting of a milk pitcher. To top it off, Feldman called up a friend, photographer Nan Goldin, to shoot partygoers' portraits in a bedroom set designed by André Balazs to simulate a suite in the Chateau Marmont. The evening raised $75,000 -- Creative Time's entire annual budget at the time was $300,000 -- and put the organization on the social map.
"Melissa takes a project and gets to its soul. From there, she puts on a new armature of muscle and bone until it becomes a functioning event," says Ealan Wingate, director of the Gagosian gallery. "It's like a really great stylist in a magazine. It's not just selling the dress; it's selling the point of view of the person who's going to wear that dress."
At the May Annual Gala for the Kitchen, the multidisciplinary art space, Feldman's glittering handiwork is in full bloom. When guests arrive at the Roxy, the roller rink turned disco at 18th Street and Tenth Avenue, they are ushered into a pitch-black entryway, illuminated only by the blue light of a videotaped Laurie Anderson performance playing on TV sets perched, one after the other, on each tier of a seemingly endless staircase. On the tables, centerpieces are made not of real bouquets but virtual ones -- digital pictures from the flower market printed on acetate. Philip Glass is over by the bar. Cindy Sherman arrives in polka-dot pony mules trimmed in fur and brushes by Met executive Ashton Hawkins and a waiter brandishing plates of caramelized bacon and barbecued beef on tiny buns. (Since the evening is in celebration of the Kitchen's video archive, Feldman devised a menu theme of TV dinners.)
"Everyone is having a good time," says Feldman through gritted teeth, as a video of a greased-up bodybuilder flexing his thighs plays on a giant screen above. "Everyone but moi. We've been insane all day. Last-minute seating changes. There's Robert" -- she waves to Robert Soros, George Soros's son -- "and Eric and Fiona" (as in Rudin, of a branch of the Scott Rudin-and-Beth Rudin deWoody clan). "Hi, Fred," she chirps to Fred Schneider from the B-52's. "He's moving from music to photography. He has a piece in the auction," she explains after he's out of earshot, gesturing to the silent auction set up on tables along the length of the room. Everything from eight assorted Pipilotti Rist videos to a Robert Mapplethorpe print to two tickets to the MTV Video Awards is on offer. Standing by the first piece, a photograph of a mouth by John Baldessari (which the Soroses will promptly snap up), Feldman is keeping a close watch on her favorites, hoping for the Jeff Koons Puppy vase or the Doug and Mike Starn tree print to add to the small collection in her London Terrace one-bedroom. She can tell she is already outbid, as usual.
Such auctions, in this tight market, are extremely popular with budding collectors who wouldn't normally make it on a gallery's most-wanted list. "A gallerist's job is to place the works as well as possible," sighs Andrea Rosen, who gets hundreds of requests a year for her artists to donate their art. "When a piece goes to auction, you totally forfeit the opportunity to do the best thing you can for your artist. But Melissa is extremely responsible," she adds. "You build a reputation where people trust you and what you're involved in. That's something Melissa's definitely done."
Feldman surveys the main floor, interrupted by guests cornering her and her clipboard in the hope of inspecting the list of their dinner companions. "I think you're at a really good table," she says to a concerned Holly Solomon, who recently moved her gallery to a space in the Chelsea Hotel. "This is the hardest part," she mutters, as Solomon wanders away. "You have to be everyone's psychologist."
As the art market has heated up, the networking over the third glass of white wine has intensified in kind. "Art-world people, especially people competing for money, live for these kinds of social events," one gallerist notes. "The opportunity for schmoozing -- that's why people pay to go." "We're mingling and mixing on a more consistent basis than we did in the past," notes Vanity Fair's Amy Fine Collins. "Melissa has been one of the people who have helped bridge that gulf. She's not the cause of it -- in some ways she's the consequence of it -- but she also is a facilitator."
Even corporations, which stayed away from the arts during the Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe scares of recent decades, are lining up to get in on the action. Some underwrite entire events; others cover the cost of components ranging from the liquor to the printing of invitations (Philip Morris pays for the invites for many Feldman parties). Still more drop their signature products into gift bags -- which are often worth more than the value of a dinner ticket. Pairing corporate sponsors with the appropriate organizations is another of Feldman's specialties. "Corporate America is recognizing that a large percentage of its target audience is found in these cultural sectors," says Sara Fitzmaurice of Fitz & Co., a public-relations firm that collaborates often with Feldman. "Something like Gucci's sponsorship of the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Biennale" -- a Feldman coup -- "reaches a broad spectrum of people, ranging from the high-end lady collector to the younger woman who can afford Gucci luxury goods and clothing. The arts bring all of those worlds together."
But the nonprofits and the corporations aren't the sole beneficiaries of the benefit scene; the artists themselves don't exactly roll out of bed for nothing. Although as a rule they duck the high cost of entry to the events (usually the invited guests of patrons, institutions, or their press-hungry gallerists), artists are there to parlay some visibility into buzz and, of course, sales. "I see Cindy Sherman in the party pages," says Sara Sosnowy, an abstract artist whose work will be featured in Ratner's hotel, "and I think it's great. You've got to play this game to a degree if you want to have a certain kind of success. Collectors love to meet the artists. I've been to collectors' homes for dinner."
"Our culture understands that visibility is a commodity," says painter Alexis Rockman. "But sometimes being in those party pages is a disaster," he notes, alluding to the overexposure of some of his colleagues who appear to spend more time on the circuit than they do in the studio. "A lot of artists really pursue it," adds artist Izhar Patkin, who donated work to both the Kitchen and Yaddo auctions. "Galleries are like yesterday's movie studios," encouraging talent to market themselves, he says. "And parties are a vehicle."
The sun is still glaring on the banana-yellow Pat Steir mural in the now-completed Embassy Suites entry hall as the first guests arrive for the Public Art Fund's fête in their Jimmy Choo heels. This June evening is the last production of Feldman's season. So far, it is not an insider crowd. "Artists are always late," says Feldman, standing guard in black Gaultier (it's hers, but she, too, is the beneficiary of designers' largesse; she was allowed to pick out several Missoni ensembles earlier in the season). "It's the corporate people that come early." And they're doing their part by spiritedly bidding up the auction. "The seventies was music, the eighties was art, the nineties was fashion. Now it's art again," offers a lawyer as an explanation. "When you've done real estate, done the stock-market thing, the art market is a great place to be." "I'm so going for Prince William," says a 24-year-old collector, upping his auction bid by $500 for a lithograph of the teen prince by Elizabeth Peyton.
Within the hour, Jeff Koons is chatting next to Donkey, the polished stainless-steel piece he donated for the evening's auction, valued at $12,000. Sculptor Mark di Suvero is picking out his table number. Yvonne Force, in a lavender pony Marni jacket, and her husband, video artist Leo Villareal, are politely posing for photographers at the bar. So are art dealer-cum-bar owner Gavin Brown and his wife, fashion designer Lucy Barnes. "There's a lot of energy right now," says Force, "and the arts deserve it. I think things are finally back to the way they should be." "It's a very optimistic time," agrees Koons. "Parties like this are great; they're a place people can be exposed to avant-garde work and feel comfortable with it."
Feldman joins her table, which includes executives from the Public Art Fund, the Robert Mapplethorpe foundation, and the Gagosian Gallery -- and her mom -- as the first course, of chilled pea soup, is served. During the requisite speeches, splinter factions of partygoers roam the hotel, riding the elevator to the top of the atrium to peer down on the party below, which looks like a colony of ants, itself an abstract piece of art. "People are mixing nicely," Feldman says. Her mood is buoyant. "These people have to go to these events a lot; they get sick of seeing people in the field. But they're in a really good mood tonight. I can sense it."
As dancing begins, Feldman's crew sets up gift bags by the door. To go along with the venue, they are "overnight stay"-themed: a Michael Graves-designed alarm clock, Kiehl's shampoo. It's already clear from the turnout that the night has pulled in more than twice as much as last year's gala. But Feldman has an eye on the future. "The art world is huge compared to when I started working in it," Feldman marvels. "It's only getting bigger and bigger." Next season, the lines are blurring further: Doctors of the World has called on her for her Rolodex -- she is putting together an art auction and has already signed LVMH as a sponsor, Michael Crichton and George Soros as honorary chairs. She's working on getting Julia Roberts to attend. In October, a photo auction she's planning at Christie's with Uma Thurman, this one for underprivileged infants, will feature Baby Gucci in the gift bags. Which is not to say that as the parties multiply and the money keeps flowing, the art world will become an open door.
"As Truman Capote observed," says Amy Fine Collins, "parties are not about who you invite but who you exclude. Now there's more people to invite," she notes. "And more people to exclude."