NEW YORK >> The opening seconds of the trailer for "The First Monday in May," the new documentary about the dizzyingly star-studded Met Gala, show pop star Rihanna tossing her fashionable head in slo-mo as the red-carpet cameras click furiously. Suitably, she sports a glistening tiara.
And then suddenly we're looking at a boyish, bespectacled man far from the limelight, far from Rihanna and Bieber and Beyonce, walking through the dimmed galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is Andrew Bolton, curator of the blockbuster exhibition that the gala is celebrating. And he's all by himself.
"It looks a bit like I wasn't invited to the party," Bolton quips now of that melancholy scene, with a laugh. But actually, he explains in an interview, he was just stealing a moment to be alone before the hordes descended — and to see his work. Up until that very morning last May, museum workers had been frantically installing the show — the biggest in scale ever mounted by the museum. So this was his first chance to really see the result.
"The First Monday in May," directed by Andrew Rossi, chronicles the yearlong preparations for the show, "China: Through the Looking Glass," and the gala that accompanied it — an annual evening for the Met's Costume Institute that has become, under the relentless nurturing of Vogue's Anna Wintour, a huge fundraiser (as in $12.5 million in one night) and one of the top celebrity gatherings in the world.
You might think the film's star is Wintour, the powerful doyenne of fashion, and there are indeed some delicious moments in which she steamrolls over anyone in her path (that Tiffany pillar? Move it, we need another table!). But it's really Bolton — who looks rather like an extremely chic Oxford professor in his horn-rimmed spectacles and shrunken suit by Thom Browne, his life partner — that forms its center. Through him, the film asks its fundamental questions: Is fashion art, or is it commerce? And if it's both, can they happily co-exist?
Clearly Bolton's answer to that last question is yes. But he acknowledges it's a tough balance — not just at the Met Gala, where the celebrities shine so brightly, but also in the fashion world itself, where celebrities play a key role in promoting designers. "I think the fact that (fashion) is associated with celebrities is sometimes not always a good thing," he says. "The celebrities wearing the clothing sometimes outshine the garment itself."
Nevertheless, Bolton, who last September became the chief curator at the Costume Institute, thinks fashion's getting a raw deal from some who resist seeing it as art. In the film, he's seen clashing — ideologically, that is — with other Met curators who are afraid his exhibition will overwhelm the traditional Asian art shown in some of the same galleries. "It's not Disneyland," one of them says.
Ultimately, the exhibit would turn out to be the most successful in the Costume Institute's history and the fifth most visited in the entire museum's history, bringing in 815,992 people. But that doesn't mean the debate within the museum has ended.
"I still think that there's a bias, a prejudice against fashion, among certain curators in the museum but also among critics outside," Bolton says. "I think they see fashion as something that is deeply rooted in the commercial world, not in the art world. And the popularity of fashion can also be annoying to some people — they don't like that it brings in such huge numbers. But the reason why it does is that it's a living art form we can all relate to."
And, Bolton says, let's not forget that art itself has its commercial side.
"I've always said that not all fashion is art, but then not all art is art!" he says. "Contemporary art is deeply, deeply rooted in commerce. And the fact that those criticisms are launched at fashion and not at art I find extraordinary, in this day and age."
If not everyone in the museum is as enamored with fashion as Bolton, he clearly has a big fan in Wintour, who notes in the film: "It's rare to find someone so creative that they change the way you look at art."
It is Wintour who provides the liveliest scenes in the movie, vividly bringing to life the thinly veiled portrait of her in "The Devil Wears Prada." At a meeting, she demands that the museum's Temple of Dendur be closed to the public on the Sunday before the gala so Rihanna can rehearse; people will just have to come back another time, she says. Rejecting plans to dress up the impressive room in Chinese style, she notes drily: "It's going to look like a Chinese restaurant."
And watch her reject the proposed decor of the new Vogue offices, declaring that the place looks like a "secondhand vintage store" and that a video display in a reception area "is making me violently ill."
Bolton mostly keeps his head down and works frantically to meet the deadline. The frantic state is one he again finds himself in this year, only days away from the next gala this Monday and the new exhibit, "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology."
The new show will occupy a smaller space and have a minimalist decor. Still, Bolton says, the process is no easier or less stressful than before.
"I think it's going to be even worse than last year," he says ruefully. "I really do."