Thursday, May 23, 2019. A warm, sunny day here in New York yesterday, with temps running up to the high 70s, very comfortable; and dropping to the low 60s by late night. The upcoming holiday weekend weather looks promising, and possibly outright summery on Sunday although it’s still a month away on the calendar.
The Social Go-Around. Tuesday night. Gayfryd Steinberg hosted a book party for her husband Michael Shnayerson at their East Side townhouse. The book: “BOOM; Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art.”
It was a small mob scene, a real New York townhouse cocktail reception with more than a few people knowing each other or seeming familiar from the rialto. I was there only briefly because I had to go on to the PEN America dinner at the American Museum of Natural History.
I just got the book three days ago and opened it on the afternoon before the party, mainly out of curiosity because I knew I had a busy night ahead of me.
My initial thought: It’s not a subject that I have deep curiosity about — the contemporary art world collectors and their collections. My only thought was, since I’ve known Michael for a long time and admire his work, was to read at least some of it. I learned quickly, however, that it grabs you immediately. Because like any social/commercial phenomenon — and the contemporary art market is phenomenal — it’s about the people. The artists, the dealers, the collectors and the billionaires.
In no time — which is what I had at that moment — I finished the first two chapters. And when I did, my only regret was that I couldn’t just stay home and read it.
It’s a very private world of dollars and sense. I knew really nothing about the subject/business because it’s way out of my range of interest economically. However, it is a substantial part of what we do when we acquire fortunes; it seems to go with the territory. Michael takes you inside that bubble and sits you down to see what it’s really like.
One of the great stars of that world today, the second generation of the character, is Larry Gagosian who fell into the business forty years ago selling cheap posters (framed) on the sidewalks of Westwood Boulevard just down the road from his alma mater, UCLA.
One day an artist from New York happened by and noticed one of the posters was of his work. He introduced himself to the young and budding dealer and volunteered to autograph it. I don’t know if the artist added that Larry could charge more for it because of the artist’s message, but Larry seemed to have naturally realized that. And so it was. Today he has fourteen galleries all over the planet and does business in the billions. A commercial art tycoon, as it were.
Michael Shnayerson takes you into that world, that “BOOM” – which is exactly what it is, like all of the high markets today including the stock, the real estate, and the selfie market. The here and now; and “you are there” as Walter Cronkite used to sign of at the end of his Sunday night half hour television show way back in the Age of Ike and the Kennedys. And that’s just from reading the first two chapters. I’m learning.
Leaving the book party, I fortuitously hitched a ride with Shirley Lord Rosenthal and Peter Heywood over to the American Museum of Natural History for the annual PEN America dinner. The dinner is held in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life — the enormous three story room with the blue whale suspended from above over almost the entire room. As you can see.
The evening always draws a big crowd. The invitation says Black Tie. As it turned out there were many men in jacket and tie and many in black tie. The evening was called for 6:30 cocktails and 7:30 dinner. When the crowd is large enough in a space that is more than large enough, the dinner hour gets pushed forward. By a little after 8 we were seated.
John Oliver was the emcee. Unfortunately the voice over speakers reverberates almost into a din. Others could hear him more clearly, as there were sudden outbursts of laughter provoked by his remarks. There were also some images of President Trump that came on the screens on either side of the podium. That too provoked laughter and maybe applause.
Oliver was followed by Jennifer Egan and Suzanne Nossel. Egan is the CEO of PEN America and Nossel is its president. They greeted the guests. Then Alec Baldwin came to the podium to introduce Richard Robinson, President of Scholastic publishers. Again, because of the acoustics of this vast hall or problems with the sound system, it was difficult to hear what he was saying. Whatever it was, it was a very long introduction – fifteen or twenty minutes of a voice that is loud yet not clear. Mr. Baldwin also read his speech which surprised me because he is vocal and verbal in real life as well as in his performances.
Richard Robinson was presented with the 2019 PEN America Publisher honor. Mr. Robinson was not brief in his thanks. Like Mr. Baldwin, he was also very difficult to hear clearly. I came away with absolutely no knowledge of what either man discussed — in a half hour or more — combined.
By that time, around nine o’clock dinner was being served. We could hear the conversations at table. In a room full of writers – each table had a special guest writer – ours was Carl Bernstein who came to an early fame as a journalist with Bob Woodward in covering the Watergate scandal and the Nixon White House.
After dinner the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award was presented in absentia to Louijain Al-Hathloul, the jailed Saudi writer-activist, accepted by two of her siblings, Lina and Walid Al-Hathloul. It has long been the program of this particular annual benefit that it served to remind us of those writers and journalists who are political prisoners under various governments and regimes across the world. The work of PEN has assisted many writers in gaining their freedom once again.
This year the emphasis had changed somewhat. Also being honored were Bob Woodward and Anita Hill. Woodward was introduced by Robert Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and a multi-volume of Lyndon Johnson.
Bob Woodward spoke of the night in the White House when Richard Nixon learned from Barry Goldwater that he had no support (four ayes only) in his own party again an impeachment. The following day, Richard Nixon resigned from office and left the White House.
Anyone aware at that time has memories of those moments which were very dramatic, wrenching and bittersweet, as well as the downfall of a President. As it happened, although it wasn’t mentioned Tuesday night, Bill Clinton was the first to be impeached in the 20th century. He did not leave his office, however, and finished out his term, and went on to maintain his place as “former President” in the world.
Anita Hill was honored with the 2019 Courage Award and was introduced by Lupita Nyong’o. In her remarks Ms. Hill reminded everyone of how times had changed for her and also for everyone else, giving her the “courage” to speak out. It was 28 years ago this coming October that Ms. Hill testified publicly at the Hearings for President George H.W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Her testimony was generally believed by the public, and it created a very brief scandal for the Supreme Court nominee who became a member shortly thereafter.