Glossy photographs of vintage stars—Clark Gable, Myrna Loy—lined the hallway of the Chateau Marmont’s penthouse Monday night. Maria Arena Bell had brought them from her personal collection to hang for one night only. The former Young and the Restless writer and former co-chair of MOCA’s board was receiving an award for patronage from Montblanc that the high-end Hamburg-based pen company has been bestowing for 25 years. It comes with €15,000 (about $17,000). Since Bell planned to donate her prize to MoMA PS1, she had asked Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA PS1’s director, to come and officially introduce her to a crowd that mostly already knew her. Eli and Edythe Broad, who had assisted Bell in the push to hire Jeffrey Deitch as MOCA’s director in 2010, stopped by briefly. MOCA’s current director, Philippe Vergne, stayed a while.
Biesenbach had just flown in from Berlin, where he’d been on Sunday, for the official opening of the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennial, which he founded back in 1998. On Tuesday morning, he had to be back in New York for a MoMA board meeting. “I don’t know exactly where I am and what I am,” he joked, “but of course I would never say no to Maria.” Despite the 14-hour flight, he was in fine form, gamely chatting during an interview and accepting a kiss on the cheek from Courtney Love, when she strolled over to say hello.
He had liked the biennial, which DIS Magazine curated. “I’m partial,” Biesenbach said. “I will always be supportive. But I think it’s just a really, really good biennial. It’s about very experimental contemporary art and by artists described very much as a generation that’s post-internet—for example Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, or John Rafman or Camille Henrot.” All of these, he noted, were artists MoMA PS1 had recently supported.
Biesenbach recalled getting to know Bell well about ten years ago, when she’d been in Rome with the Broads, being toured around by artist Francesco Vezzoli—“Maria could call him a brother,” said Beisenbach of Vezzoli, “but then she could also call Jeff Koons a brother.”
Just this spring, Bell called to tell him that she was joining the board of MoMA PS1.
“Literally, MoMA PS1 is turning 40, and that was biggest gift, Maria joining the board,” Biesenbach said.
“I chose MoMA PS1 because it’s the museum of the future,” Bell said.
When Bell joined MOCA’s board in 2008, the museum hovered on the edge of financial ruin. “I became the chair and at virtually my first meeting it was announced that MOCA was going to fail and close its doors,” Bell recalled. The museum’s endowment had been depleted under former director Jeremy Strick, and the search for a new director was underway. “So I spent five years fighting for the survival of MOCA,” said Bell, adding that she hoped the Montblanc award was as much for the work she did at MOCA as the education-related philanthropy she’s done with organizations like PS Arts.
Under Bell’s leadership, MOCA’s board raised $100 million for the museum’s endowment and hired dealer Jeffrey Deitch whose tenure was heavily criticized—MOCA’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel, was fired under Deitch, artist board members resigned, and certain shows, like “Art in the Streets” and a collaboration with Mike D. of the Beastie Boys and Mercedes-Benz, were seen as too commercial. Bell sees it differently. “He blew open the museum doors,” she said.
“I felt very much a part of his tenure,” Bell added, citing the galas she chaired under Deitch, one in which Francesco Vezzoli collaborated with Lady Gaga and another in which Marina Abramovic enlisted dancers and artists to serve as table centerpieces, some lying nude with legs splayed on rotating discs.
Biesenbach had worked with Abramovic on her MoMA retrospective just before the 2011 MOCA gala, and he and Bell got to know each other better when she chaired the event.
“I think it’s beautiful to have these very strong women [to look up to],” said Biesenbach. “Peggy Guggenheim, Alana Heiss, Maria Bell—I’m very, very admiring.” Heiss, the founder of PS1 and his mentor, will be curating MoMA PS1’s anniversary show, he noted. It will be called “40,” though that’s all he would say at the moment. During the awards ceremony he emphasized again how good a birthday present it was to have Bell on MoMA’s board.
The ceremony lasted nearly half an hour. Sam Bardaouil, who just became chairman of the Montblanc Cultural Foundation, along with his longtime curatorial partner Till Fellrath, told the story of Michelangelo’s legendary spat with a cardinal. The artist had depicted this cardinal on his way to hell, a serpent about to devour his private parts. Pope Paul III had refused to intervene, which made him a “special, special patron of the arts,” said Bardaouil. “The true nature of patronage is all about taking risks.”
The statue Bell received had been crafted to hold a red-and-gold pen inspired by the dealer, collector, and patron Peggy Guggenheim. “It’s in the image of my absolute hero,” Bell said of Guggenheim, “an iconoclast, a woman who also loved artists. But she loved them in the biblical sense.”