The Art of the Party

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.”

“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.”

The Art of the Party