To look at the Sarasota social schedule in April, one might think there had been no pandemic.
Selby Gardens’ exuberant “Orchid Experience” quickly sold out as did the fundraiser for the Sarasota Ballet’s 30th Anniversary Gala two nights later. Supporters of The Hermitage, an artists’ retreat had already celebrated a week earlier.
True, the crowds everywhere were half what they would have been pre pandemic as social distancing sliced the guests lists. But as real estate lawyer Tom Luzier, put it after the Orchid evening: “Friday night felt like the first day back at school and the first dance of the semester wrapped up together, after the longest, strangest summer break ever,” he said. “What a delicious taste of freedom under the night sky.”
Forget about casual dressing. Festive dress was the order of the evening. Mr. Luzier’s wife Allison donned a vibrant Diane Von Furstenberg sequined dress. Mr. Luzier opted for a boldly stripped blazer.
Some men wore sport jackets and ties, others skipped ties and jackets entirely. And if the women did not go formal, they clearly relished dressing up, after a long year in — well-whatever.
For those with wanderlust, (and who is not suffering from that particular illness,) The Orchid Experience, with its focus on “Impressions of Pop:” or Monet’s gardens as Roy Lichtenstein might have imagined them, was a visual balm. Guests found themselves gazing at Claude Monet’s home at Giverny decorated in the late modern artist’s tyle style.
For the evening, chief executive Jennifer Rominiecki and her team had decorated the (spaced and socially distanced) tables in the garden with an array of fruits and flowers including orchids that had each been Lichtenstein-i-fied with pink or blue dots on every petal.
Other gardens around the country have used artists’ works to inspire their shows, but Ms. Rominiecki’s goal had been to infuse Selby with the Lichtenstein aesthetic. This will be the 6th year that Ms. Rominiecki, whose training included posts at the Metropolitan Opera as well as the New York Botanical Garden, has launched exhibitions that marry well known artists with gardens and flowers that infused their work. But this year’s show was unique in showcasing how one artist’s work inspired another.
It was, as is much these days, the result of googling. While on the web, Ms. Rominiecki discovered that Lichtenstein had made prints of both Monet’s water lilies and his haystacks. Over the years Lichtenstein did his own pop interpretations of important artists: Cezanne, Mondrian and Picasso.
Less well known have been Lichtenstein’s interpretations of Claude Monet’s iconic haystacks and his water lilies. So taken was the artist with Monet that he initially interpreted the haystacks and nearly three decades later, after visiting Giverny, Monet’s home and garden in France, Lichtenstein created his own versions of the water lilies: using brilliant colors to capture the appeal of Monet’s aesthetic in the pop idiom.
At Selby a path along the garden’s bay front has been punctuated with large orange pots edged with the familiar Lichtenstein-inspired black trim. Among the plants, the garden used fox gloves, a Monet favorite, and a salvia called Mystic Spires Blue, to represent lavender.
To suggest how Monet’s work inspired Lichtenstein, the team built a 25-foot-wide, 12-foot-high, two-story pink home reimagined with red Ben-Day dots, bright blue-green for the shutters and black trim. They also added a Japanese footbridge — painted in Monet’s shade of green over a pond enhanced with Lichtenstein-style water lilies and wisteria.
Not only was the garden draped in Lichtenstein, but for the benefit, so were many of the guests. Jean Weidner Goldstein, herself a former ballerina and the force behind the creation of the Sarasota Ballet, found an enormous silk scarf with a Lichtenstein pattern. “I ordered it online from Romania, And it came in three days,” Mrs. Goldstein marveled.
For Ms. Rominiecki, finding some of Lichtenstein’s Monet-inspired works took a bit of sleuthing, but the Perez Museum in Miami proved one source as did the local collector, Flora Mayor, who recalled that she and her late husband acquired their Lichtenstein Haystack (that is part of the exhibit in the garden’s art gallery) at auction at Christie’s in the 1990s.
Mrs. Major noted that people were already doing outdoor activities in Sarasota by the time of the Orchid Experience but she found it special because, “It made sense to be outside and everyone was ready to see each other and get dressed.”
Certainly that was true for Audrey Robbins who looked sleek in a floor length Pucci. “Oh my God, I was so glad to get out,” she exclaimed. Other guests included Veronica Brady and Keith Monda, the former president of Coach, and Marianne McComb, vice chairman of the board, and her husband, William McComb, former chief executive of Liz Claiborne Inc.
Selby Gardens Chairwoman Pauline Wamsler welcomed the guests. She comes from a family dedicated to gardens. Her great great grandmother, Berthe Honore Palmer, as the widow of Potter Palmer, came to Sarasota from Chicago and quickly bought up 9000 acres of land south of Sarasota for cattle and farming. Pauline’s mother, Berthe Wamsler, was a garden lover and longtime board member of the New York Botanical Garden.
Last year Ms. Wamsler’s ties to Selby became even stronger when Selby struck a savvy arrangement to merge with Historic Spanish Point, a lovely 3,000-acre garden south of Sarasota that includes the home where Berthe Palmer once lived.
The agreement to merge the two gardens was hailed by Forbes for its innovativeness. Struck at a Co-Vid moment when cultural institutions were under pressure, Historic Spanish Point was particularly vulnerable since it had only 750 members compared to 14,000 at Selby (where in her six years at chief executive Ms. Rominiecki had slashed debt and increased membership). The merger represented a way for two cultural institutions to better survive the pandemic. And grow.
Still it had been a challenging year for Selby, too and the Orchid evening was cause to celebrate. When Ms. Rominiecki unveiled a $92 million, six-year plan to expand the garden, she ran into some local resistance. But after a number of modifications, the plan was approved by the City Commission.
Dr. Joel Morgenroth and his wife, Dr. Gail Morrison Morgenroth, have pledged $5 million to Selby’s efforts to expand Selby. “It is really about community impact,” Dr. Morgenroth said. “Arts and other things are important for a good segment of the community, but this is important for everyone and they can go any time of the day.”
As guests dined on smoked duck breast salad, porcini-crusted chateau of beef and “Pop” pastries, Walter Gilbert, the garden’s outreach and community manager, led a paddle raise to support underserved families.
A booming stock market and support for the garden brought in $250,000 — more than Selby had raised in the year before the pandemic. Prominent New York philanthropist Shelby White, who has attended the event for several years, sent a contribution. And two new $1 million gifts were also unveiled: $1 million from Jean Weidner Goldsmith, a long time Selby loyalist, and the Floyd C. Johnson and Flo Johnson Foundation.
Two nights later Sarasota’s waterfront was again the backdrop for a glittering fundraiser: Sarasota Ballet’s 30th Anniversary Gala: a savvy mixture of indoor and outdoor: with guests willing to go inside (spaced) to watch a production of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Birthday Offering” before dinner.
The company’s director Iain Webb, who has brought the British choreographer’s work to the fore in this country, thanked guests for coming and spoke of how happy he and the company were to perform before a live audience. Along with local recognition, the Ballet has won rave reviews from Alistair Macaulay, the former The New York Times ballet critic.
Guests who had worried about gathering indoors could watch the ballet on screens set up in the waterfront tent where dinner was served.
For some of the town’s busiest philanthropists, it was a weekend of coming out parties. Katherine Martucci is on the board of Selby (as well as chairman of Children First, which funds early Headstart programs for families across Sarasota). Meanwhile her husband Frank is Chairman of the Sarasota Ballet and a board member of the Ringling College of Art and Design.
Mr. Martucci’s own background is unusual. After two decades on Wall street, he left to get a masters degree in philosophy. Like philosophy, he has said that watching ballet gives one the opportunity to experience another world.
During the evening he gave a warm speech reminding guests to ask themselves “what we have done that goes beyond what is seen to what is eternal” and pointed out that the ballet does a great deal for the community in education and rehabilitation.
The event called for “festive dress.” New York sportswear designer, Adrienne Vittadini, whose family has been coming to Sarasota for years, took that to heart and wore a brilliant pink evening jacket.
Rosemary Reinhardt, whose husband David Welle is on the ballet’s advisory council, opted for a floor length gown. “I am thrilled to be able to retire my loungeware and feel feminine again in a full length fitted gown,” she said.
Emily Walsh, publisher of The Observer Media Group, a company owned by her family, has an affinity for the ballet. She danced in the company from 1995 to 2000, and her sister Kate Honea, who attended the gala as well, is the Sarasota Ballet’s assistant ballet mistress and one of its principal dancers. Unfortunately she had hurt her foot rehearsing for the gala and was on crutches. For Ms. Walsh, it was “great to see people back in action again and nice to hug some people … who were o.k. with that.”
Perhaps the most famous guest of the evening would have to be Margaret Kerry, the actress best known as the model for Tinkerbell in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated film: Peter Pan.
A week earlier, a fund raiser for the Hermitage, an artists’ retreat south of Sarasota, had to move its benefit from the terrace of the Ringling Museum to the super popular Michael’s on East restaurant as a result of a rainstorm.
Still guests turned out. “Neither rain nor sleet nor any tropical storm was going to stop us from finding a way to celebrate,’’ said the Hermitage’s chief executive and Artistic director Andy Sandberg.
In the tradition of interlocking philanthropies, Flora Major was co chairman of the dinner together with Ellen Berman, who is a Hermitage board member.
The 2021 Hermitage Greenfield Prize went to Aleshea Harris who has already won a slew of awards for her play: is God is. The Greenfield prize includes a $30,000 commission for a new work that will have its first public presentation at Sarasota’s Asolo Repetory Theatre done in conjunction with the Hermitage. Ms. Harris will also have a six week period at the Hermitage to work on the new production. “It means the world that you all believe in me,” Ms. Harris said in her acceptance speech. “ I am excited to create something extraordinary and to make you all proud.’’