The Scene: Mass MoCA's annual benefit in NYC

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NEW YORK CITY — $300,000. $350,000. $400,000. $500,000.

On Tuesday night, auctioneer Eric Widing was gleefully taking bids on the 11th item up for auction at Tribeca Rooftop, the site of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's annual benefit event. It was a yet-to-be-titled, wide curved glass James Turrell installation.

"This newly commissioned work will be custom-formatted to fit the buyer's space ... similar in scale and effect to the wide curved glass that Turrell designed for Mass MoCA, titled 'Dissolve,'" a description in the event's program read. The work's value was estimated at somewhere between $600,000 and $1,000,000 (not counting artist travel and installation costs).

Perhaps a bit anti-climatically, the installation's ultimate recipient was not present, with Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson waving his own card to represent the $550,000 absentee bid. But there were plenty of other winning bidders in attendance among the roughly 300 artists, employees, financial backers and assorted guests of the North Adams institution. The crowd was dressed in formal attire and seated around more than 30 tables in an indoor event space featuring 360-degree views of the city. Attendees gripped bid cards as Widing coaxed increasingly large amounts out of the group, anticipatory giggles followed by applause after each successful round.

Other "lots" up for sale included lunch with Laurie Anderson (winning bid: $5,000); Alex Da Corte's painting, "The Gossips (Bird in Hand)" ($11,000); Lonnie Holley's 2014 work, "Mother Teaching the Children" ($14,000); and contributions to Mass MoCA's education programs (tiered at four different levels, $20,000 being the highest).

Before the event, Thompson had stressed the importance of the auction, a critical contributor to the total funds raised during the evening. The director was hoping that the night would cover about one-third of the museum's annual programming budget. According to Mass MoCA Director of Communications Jodi Joseph, the evening exceeded Thompson's financial expectation, raising half of the programming budget. (The museum declined to provide a specific figure.)

In addition to raising funds, Thompson was also aiming to convince attendees who had never been to the museum — traditionally, a substantial portion of the audience, he said — to make the trip to North Adams sometime soon.

"The goal here is to win friends," Thompson said while standing near the venue's front doors around 6 p.m.

The director said that the decision to hold the benefit in New York City, its location for more than a decade, stems from Manhattan and Brooklyn's longtime art-world prestige as well as art's growing presence in boroughs such as Queens. The fact that artists and many of the museum's financial supporters live in the Big Apple is vital, too.

"It's important to be in New York," he said, noting that he is typically in the city about twice a month and that the museum will still consider the Berkshires for future parties.

Members of the Brooklyn United Marching Band played as attendees entered through glass doors on Desbrosses Street in lower Manhattan and took an elevator upstairs to a cocktail hour at 6:30. Upon exiting the elevator, guests were greeted with glasses of Chardonnay, champagne or sparkling water as they walked into a room with a bar, high tables and the auction items lining the walls.

Artist Joe Wardwell, whose wall drawing, "Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States," is currently on view at the museum, was standing at a table with his wife, Kathleen Fitch. A Wardwell painting that would be up for bid later that night, "Soon I Will Be President," hung nearby. (It went for $3,500.) While the artist was excited to see many of the people who helped him install his exhibit, a process that took three weeks, he and his wife were also just happy to have a break from their Boston home. The couple has two daughters and a dog.

"This is a night in New York City away from all three," Wardwell said.

Dominique Haim, who is associated with an art foundation in southwest France and was accompanied by former French Olympian alpine skier Isabelle Mir, was disappointed more people hadn't gone black-tie. She was dressed in all black with a strand of pearls.

"I was thinking of the '30s," she said of a time when people donned more formal attire.

As waitstaff circulated with various gazpachos, steak bites, Peking duck and other treats, guests gradually packed the room, jockeying for elbow space while ordering drinks. (Along with white wine and champagne, a bartender said Negronis were particularly popular.)

At around 7:40 p.m., with conversations showing little signs of slowing down, the Brooklyn United Marching Band led the throng into the dining area. The group gave a brief performance on stage as people stood and cheered by their seats, their first courses (roasted baby gold, red and candy beets with blood orange, crumbled goat cheese, pickled onions and mache) awaiting them.

Hans Morris, chairman of the Mass MoCA Foundation's board of trustees, spoke after the show, highlighting the museum's accomplishments this year. Next, the monitors and projectors around the room displayed a short video detailing Liz Glynn's current exhibit at the museum ("The Archaeology of Another Possible Future"). Main courses — steak house filet or maple glazed Chilean sea bass — followed.

The auction and a short set by soul singer Nona Hendryx, who performed at the museum this summer, closed out the night. (Some guests had room for flourless chocolate cake and pumpkin cream classic cheesecake, too.)

People began leaving the venue shortly thereafter. Most were gone by 10:45. Artist Tanja Hollander leaned against a ledge at the back of the room as people exited. She acknowledged that it can be difficult for artists to witness their works being bid on, but she felt comfortable at Mass MoCA's benefit because she has an exhibit at the museum and knows its staff and supporters well.

"They're like family to me," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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