On Monday night some 900 people crammed their way up six floors of the New York Academy of Art for the institution’s annual Tribeca Ball. Billed as an “art gala unlike any other,” the evening is both an open studio for the school’s hundred or so graduate students and a fundraiser in support of the Academy’s scholarships and public programming.
At $300 a pop, guests were treated to an assortment of musical interludes scattered throughout the floors, an array of stilt-balancing merpeople who would not have been out of place on a Coney Island boardwalk, and a dinner in honor of restaurateur and long-serving arts patron Michael Chow and his wife, Eva.
“Think of tonight as a Venn diagram,” said Academy lecturer and artist Jean-Pierre Roy, describing the evening’s proceedings. “It’s where the real world overlaps a bit with our students, who get to explore a different set of behaviors and vocabulary.” Roy continued by offering the following metaphor: “It’s sort of that moment where the dolphin can see the human through the water and the human can see the dolphin and they know that their worlds are separate but they get just a glimpse of each other.” (As evidenced by the aforementioned merpeople, the evening had an aquatic theme, so this metaphor didn’t come out of nowhere.)
In an attempt to breach the divide between, uh, human and dolphin, I journeyed to a fifth-floor studio to chat with a student by the name of Joseph Griffith. “I’ve invented my own kind of paint,” said Griffith, a former Marine Corps infantrymen with a degree in psychology, who appeared in a sort of Nutty Professor get-up standing beside a UV-lit table filled with glowing vials. “It’s paint that works ‘additively,’ the way that light works. If I mix my red and green, I get yellow. If I mix my red, green, and blue together, I get white—although it’s more of a yellowish white,” Griffith continued. He lost me a bit when he went on to describe the quantum mechanics behind his patent-pending invention.
Still, the art was a big hit at the party, and artists were selling work to guests directly out of their studios. Another popular attraction were the on-tap oyster girls—waitresses who each had three aluminum buckets strapped to their waists: one holding fresh oysters; another for tabasco, lemon juice, and bloody mary mix; and a third for discarded shells. “You’re a one-woman oyster bar,” said one salacious guest to his server, stating the obvious.
The sea creatures on stilts, by contrast, were less favored by at least one guest. “I enjoyed the evening, but I’m not crazy about these performative elements,” said a deadpan Marina Abramovic, gesturing in the general direction of some nearby turquoise sirens bedecked in Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry. “This is exactly when the performers become entertainment and this is what I’m against for all my life,” added Abramovic. (Abramovic herself has come under fire in the past for exploiting performers at very low wages for a performance she organized at a gala.) “Performance is serious business,” she said, “It’s not entertainment at the party.”
Elsewhere, Naomi Watts had run out of corners to turn in order to avoid speaking to a reporter. “I come every year,” she told me. “I’m always excited to come and support the emerging artists and terrific paintings.” She listed a wood-carved etching among one of her evening’s purchases along with a “couple other pieces” she had her eye on.
I had the fortune of bumping into the man of the hour himself, Mr. Chow, on my way back down the stairs, where we both discovered the perils of conducting an interview in a busy stairwell. Our interaction went something like this:
“Mr. Chow, congratulations on your honor.”
“Are you English?”
“No, South African.”
Smiling, Chow nodded, “I’m English too.”
“So how do you…” I began to ask before a man cut in and thrust out his hand in Chow’s direction.
“David Hockberg,” he said, “my brother Fred Hockberg goes to your restaurant all the time. About five years ago I went into your restaurant at about 4:30 in the afternoon and you were at the podium, I don’t know why.”
“I was practicing,” said Chow, as Hockberg continued without pause.
“And you said, ‘Are you here to apply for a job or to make a reservation?’ I said, ‘I would be the employee from hell,’ so you said, ‘Good, give me your reservation.’ ”
With that, Hockberg was gone, as if he’d never been there at all. Trying to pick up where we left off, I said, “So how does it feel to be honored tonight?”
“Shocked and humbled, I have all these…” said Chow, interrupted once again, this time by a PR-looking person.
“Excuse me, Mr Chow, the speeches are about to start.”
And with that he was whisked away. He told me to try to find him later, but I couldn’t.