in Opinion | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Bright Lights Big Cavity

Social events in the art world can result in a sense of disorientation that has little to do with the wine

in Opinion | 01 JAN 07

A queasy morning. I’m out of training. How soon one forgets the rigours of party-going. For 20 years, openings, cocktails and dinners were major components of my working and playing life; for the 12 during which I worked as Senior Curator at the Museum of Modern Art, I was out at least four nights a week. Over the last five years, though, I have rarely made the scene. In part, this is because the minute one steps down from a position of influence, the invitations start to dry up. (Although it was gratifying to continue to receive them from people who expected no favours when I had few to dispense. These I count as true friends.) Otherwise, if I have passed on most opportunities to mingle until recently, it was because of the discomfort of constantly being asked why I gave up my post. Out of loyalty to the House that Barr built, and to friends at all levels who were working hard to keep the museum on course, it was not a question I had any intention of answering. Nor will I now.

So, I am out of shape – social events are athletic events, as professionals know – and the consequence was a mild hangover and an even greater sense of disorientation that had nothing to do with excess wine. The party I attended was the annual fundraiser for the Dia Art Foundation. The site may partially explain my vertigo: it was on the 52nd floor of the recently completed 7 World Trade Center. The entrance to the building is adjacent to the scar that marks where the Twin Towers stood. To get to the pinnacle where the function took place, guests traversed an immense, glacially elegant lobby under the watchful gaze of ranked hat-checkers and list-keepers. Having forgotten the drill, I arrived on time – meaning early – so facing these sentinels alone felt like sneaking aboard the Death Star. On the way to the elevator that would suck me skyward, I passed a huge LED board on which cryptic texts skidded by. The disconcerting phrases were by an assortment of writers; the installation by Jenny Holzer. At the end of the vertical ride, I was ushered on to another ‘set’ that resembled the ghostly bar in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), where a crowd of art professionals and patrons gradually assembled in an unfinished office floor with an unimpeded view of the city on all sides. Liquor flowed in stem glasses, and hors d’oeuvres were served in the semi-darkness from platters that illuminated the pricey morsels from below, like specimens from a CSI lab. Then all in attendance proceeded to the tables, which were also underlit – lending us a ghastly aura – and more lavish food and drink were served. Thereafter everything followed the normal script: speeches of welcome, speeches of thanks, speeches of praise and a few hurried comments about the programme from a curator palpably ill at ease in the noisy setting. Then the shuffling and apologies of guests leaving early. Then the loosening of the social knot tied by the motion of bodies alternately turning left and right to dinner partners, as if timed by a metronome. Then the final rush to the exits when the decorum of the well-oiled social machine breaks down to that of turnstiles and closing doors in the subway. From start to finish, business as usual.

But something has changed since I last attended such an affair – something besides me – and the physical anomalies of the site brought those changes home. In part, it’s a matter of the limbo Dia now occupies. Once a brave and extravagant wager on the enduring value of vanguard art bankrolled by a single family, at present Dia must rely on the kindness of strangers, or rather on that of ever-shifting coalitions of new wealth that seek to share Dia’s pioneering vision but are largely unaccustomed to the risk or the stamina that takes. Across town, and around the world, old institutions created by headstrong individuals – art visionaries blessed with means – are desperate to enlarge their base of support even as a bumper crop of new but, one suspects, under-endowed private museums are being born. Benefits for each other’s projects are where the cultural movers and shakers behind them meet. The ‘hall’ for the Dia function was donated by a property magnate with vast designs on Lower Manhattan. Thus a model of patrician Utopianism in ‘turnaround’ was celebrated in a monument to hard-nosed deal-making; thus a currently homeless haven for the new – an absence in the city more than a presence – convened its band of loyalists in a remote eyrie overlooking an urban wound; thus, in the reception area of that citadel, behind uniformed personnel and security barriers, ‘free speech’ unfurled on Holzer’s light board while 52 storeys above many words of gratitude, but only a few about art, were spoken. No wonder I had one too many.