The English comedian, actor, and writer Stephen Fry so represents the world’s perception of Britishness that when you land at London’s Heathrow airport from anywhere in the world, there is a video explaining the country to new visitors, and it’s hosted by Stephen Fry. Standing in the pub, Fry discusses the proper way to react upon the dropping of glassware—you cheer, naturally—and explains the “after you” loop, in which two people standing at roughly the same spot in a queue say “after you” back and forth until someone finally acquiesces and goes forth.
And on Tuesday night at the IAC building in Chelsea, Fry took to the podium to host the gala for Royal Academy America—the stateside fundraising arm of the London institution, drumming up support across the pond since 1983. The timing was pretty excellent, as most people in the room would be traveling to London the next week for the Frieze Art Fair. And like on the video that plays at Heathrow, Fry was once again personifying Britishness, but this time with the audience of one country in particular, the country he was currently in, the one with a certain head of state.
“The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, just a few years before the American Revolution, when you decided to break off from England,” he said, before pausing.
“Feeling a bit silly now, aren’t you! Well eat it, Yankee Doodle!” he said to riotous applause.
What followed were some more jokes at the expense of the domestic situation, including a shout-out to “the fearless members of the mainstream fake news media,” a reminder that the National Anthem that the Right holds so dear was once a British tune about “wine and the art of making love,” and the announcement that he would cede the floor to the winners of the gala’s honors, whom he referred to as “whoever the Russians decided should win.”
(The winners of the honors included Thomas Heatherwick and Marina Abramovic.)
Interestingly, Josh Kushner, the brother of embattled senior advisor to the president Jared Kushner, returned to his seat at the IAC building after Fry hopped off the stage, apparently having missed the whole opening bit stuffed with swipes at the president, but he stuck around to see RAA chairman Declan Kelly introduce the third honoree, Aryeh Bourkoff, the LionTree Partners founder whom Jared Kushner tapped to advise him when he made his bid for the L.A. Dodgers in 2012.
Kelly served as Hillary Clinton’s economic envoy to Northern Ireland when she was Secretary of State and co-founded the Bill Clinton-associated Teneo Holdings, whereas Bourkoff was on board to broker the deal to start Trump TV—but they got along swimmingly, saying nice things to each other in the name of the Royal Academy. Kelly gushed to the crowd that he lasted two whole hours staring at Abramovic during “The Artist is Present” at MoMA, whereas Sharon Stone, a few spots down in line, lasted only 45 minutes. Bourkoff gushed that when establishing his offices in London’s Mayfair, he insisted they be in view of the R.A. And so on.
During the dinner course, Heatherwick took the stage to accept the night’s honor and deliver what he termed “the serious speech,” and began discussing his work Vessel, a gigantic series of crisscrossing staircases that is indeed going up some 15 blocks up on the West Side Highway, despite the controversy surrounding that decision.
“London won the 2012 bid for the Olympics, so the Olympic stadium didn’t get built in New York,” he said, describing the backstory of the Hudson Yards development project where Vessel will very soon be a sight to behold.
He went on, saying that when he began drawing up plans for a work that could be in this waterfront development, he wanted it to have the chutzpah of skyscrapers past, a chutzpah he felt was missing from recent large-scale projects.
“I couldn’t see the confidence, something sputtered, there was nothing new that had that confidence,” Heatherwick said. “We’re constructing a mile of public space, something that wouldn’t be commissioned anywhere in the world.”
Heatherwick also mentioned the recent cancellation of his plans to build a pier off the Hudson River. Commonly referred to as “Diller Island,” it was to be funded by Barry Diller, the chairman of IAC, whose building we were in—and in the six years since the project was started, the cost had ballooned from $35 million to $250 million. Diller pulled the plug.
“We worked on a new pier that had to stop as of a week ago, when dark forces of the legal system stopped a project that had such public support,” Heatherwick said before the crowd.
Heatherwick moved on to Zeitz MOCAA, the newly opened South Africa museum that he designed, and told a story about how the Archbishop Desmond Tutu got up on the stage at the museum’s opening—”This little 89-year-old man with cancer came on stage and started dancing on the stage!” Heatherwick said—and recalled how the Archbishop claimed that Nelson Mandela was talking to him “from upstairs,” and that Mandela said, of the museum, “This is good.”
And then Marina Abramovic came onstage to read her remarks, which were surprisingly short, given her penchant for endurance. She started to read, but she was holding her printed-out speech high up enough to be caught on the camera. It was printed double-sided, so everyone knew how it was going to end.