When the singer-writer Patti Smith asked her friend, the artist and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, what drove him to create, he wrote this explanation. “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.”
They were both passionate young artists finding their way in New York City in a friendship that would become the stuff of legend and propel each of them forward in the art world: Smith to writing and singing and Mapplethorpe to photograph some of the most arresting pictures of the 20th Century — from highly charged images of the homosexual world where he roamed — to stylized portraits of flowers.
This season as Sarasotans lifted masks to launch the social season, Sarasota’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens opened the exhibition: Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry and Light: marrying Mapplethorpe’s flower photography with audio excerpts of Patti Smith readings from her work, along with an audio of her music. Mapplethorpe may be best known for his erotic images, but he also did extensive work with flowers. Ms. Smith is the author of Just Kids about their long time friendship.
An indoor exhibition of photographs of the two together in New York City is a nostalgic revisiting of those early years of their friendship and the artistic cultural world in Manhattan that centered around the legendary Chelsea Hotel where they lived for a time among New York’s artists.
The Selby event was but one of many as the urge to celebrate and support local institutions, including the Ringing Museum, the Asolo Theatre, the Hermitage Retreat and others, gained steam.
To inaugurate the Selby show, Selby chief executive Jennifer Rominiecki used a black and white theme. Tables were set with black tablecloths and lush arrangements of white flowers including hyacinths, tulips and anemones among others. Tiny lights were draped across the ceiling. Even the wine glasses were black. (One guest worried that it was hard to tell if they were full or not!).
Glamour returned in full force. Since the exhibition theme was photography, guests were asked to dress in black and white so some guests coupled their gowns with white orchids as hair decoration. Jean Weidner Goldstein, who together with her late husband Alfred had created the exhibition series, looked stunning in a long black evening dress. As did Audrey Robbins, who together with her husband, Harry Leopold are supporters, also wore black.
Ashley Kozel, one of the evening’s three co-chairmen, along with Liebe Gamble and Retta Wagner, wore a decollete black dress.
Some guests mixed it up. Margaret Wise, who came with Tom Taylor, wore a black gown with a long white evening cloak. Marianne McComb, Selby’s board chairman, wore a white skirt, black top and long black gloves. Her husband opted for a white dinner jacket, as did Mr. Taylor.
Guests dined on truffle dusted chateau of beef, butternut squash soufflé and braised figs, with a dessert cake decorated to underscore art and music.
Selby took the occasion of the Orchid Ball to interpret some of Mapplethorpe’s works both in its greenhouse and on Selby’s grounds.
In its tropical conservatory, the Selby team reimagined it as a studio and gallery in which living flowers are framed and set in a style evocative of Mapplethorpe’s work. Across the grounds were arrangements that evoked Mapplethorpe’s dramatic photographs. One particularly striking setting included an outdoor gallery where single living flowers were held in vases set into three dimensional frames.
This was the 6th exhibit in what has become an annual event that Ms. Rominiecki launched after she joined the garden in 2015. Previous exhibitions have showcased works by Henri Matisse and Roy Lichtenstein among others. This year’s ball was not only reason for Ms. Rominiecki to celebrate. She is also overseeing a major expansion of the popular gardens.
The somewhat reclusive Patti Smith came to see the exhibit, participate in an interview with Selby’s resident curator-at-large Carol Ockman, and perform. Tickets were sold out weeks in advance.
Ms. Smith told the crowd that she loved the whole show: the banyan and bamboo trees as well as the interpretations of the paths that she and Robert Mapplethorpe took.
Ms. Smith is no stranger to gardens. She said that her favorite was in Pisa, near the leaning tower and that her love of gardens and trees grew during a childhood in the rural area of New Jersey. “It is rural marshland,’’ she said.
After a question and answer period with Ms. Ockman, Ms. Smith performed for the audience who clearly relished hearing her and seemed to know the words to her most famous song; “Because the Night.”
Ms. Smith recalled that when Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the music, sent it to Ms. Smith, she knew instantly that it would be a hit. She wrote lyrics that would reflect the emotional voice of a woman.
After the song was released, she and Mapplethorpe were walking along 8th Street in New York City where they could hear “Because the Night” which was high on the charts, blaring from every record store. Flora Major, who serves on Selby’s advisory board said: “I liked the concert a lot and thought she was very lovely.”
As Ms. Smith told it, Mr. Mapplethorpe had always been determined to become famous. When he heard her song played everywhere, he wasn’t entirely thrilled. “Patti, you got famous before me,” he told her. Ms. Smith was not as entranced by her success. “I just wanted to be great,” she remembers thinking.
Ms. Smith was not the only close companion of Mr. Mapplethorpe to participate in the Selby events. Earlier in the season, at the chairman’s circle dinner for donors and supporters, the guest of honor was Robert’s brother Edward Mapplethorpe who worked with Robert for some years and is himself an artist.
Mr. Mapplethorpe was interviewed by James Snyder, director emeritus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, whose mother-in-law, Bernice Dabis, lives in Sarasota. The philanthropist Shelby White had introduced Ms. Rominiecki to Mr. Snyder who has worked with her to borrow works from museums around the world.
“At the first Chairman’s Circle dinner, there were only 50 people,” Mr. Snyder recalled. “Now there are 300 guests. The proof is in the pudding … topped with flowers,” he said, smiling. Ms. Rominiecki also told guests of the progress in the ambitious expansion program she is overseeing.
Other Sarasota art centers were busy as well this season. The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art held an opening to showcase a major gift of modern works donated from the Murray Bring and Kay Delaney Bring collection, which includes pieces by Jules Olitski, Beverly Pepper and Gene Davis, among others.
The Ringling too has an extraordinary setting along Sarasota Bay and cocktails were held on its loggia. The Brings, who moved from Manhattan in 2008, had kept much of their collection in Easthampton, where they had a home but when they decided to sell two years, they thought of contributing some pieces to the museum.
Murray Bring recalled that he began collecting as a young lawyer at Arnold Fortas and Porter in Washington when a colleague invited him to the elegant brownstone of a gallery owner. “I was blown away,” Mr. Bring recalled at the opening. “She had paintings from the ceiling to the floor. There were things that caught my eye.”
The owner encouraged Mr. Bring to take home several works. He could hardly afford them so she suggested the installment plan. “I bought my car that way,” Mr. Bring remembered reasoning. He took home a Milton Avery, a Matisse lithograph and two other works.
That was the beginning of an odyssey that culminated at the opening for Circle members to celebrate: As Long as There is Sun: as Long as there is light: Selections from The Bring Gift and The Ringling Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Guests enjoyed cocktails on the loggia, talks by Mr. Bring, Ringling Museum executive director Steven High and others and the luxury of seeing the newly installed show.
For the exhibition, curator Ola Wlusek paired some of the Brings’ works with American and international works in the Ringling’s own collection that had not been widely seen.
The show, which spreads across three galleries, includes some of the most important artists from that era. Among the guests enjoying the exhibition were Marie and Warren Colbert, the incoming board chairman. Mr. Colbert said the gift was “fabulous” and noted that “it comes as the museum is trying to increase its exposure to the contemporary world,” he added.
Other guests included the collector Keith Monda, the former president of Coach, who, together with his former wife Linda, gave the museum $5 million toward its $100 million campaign.
Sarasota prides itself on a vibrant cultural life which includes its widely acclaimed ballet company, where Iain Webb serves as director, his wife Margaret Barbieri, a former prima ballerina, is assistant director, and Joe Volpe, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, is executive director. At a luncheon hosted by the Friends of the Sarasota Ballet, celebrating Mr. Webb’s 15 years of leadership, he was interviewed by his son Jason Ettore who is the ballet’s marketing chief.
During the talk at the town’s popular Michael’s on East, Mr. Webb conceded that he was ambivalent about becoming the director, but his wife advised: “If you don’t try now, you will be too old.“ He added that: “It was the first time I ever interviewed for a job. I thought I would last about a year,” he recalled.
That year has turned into 15 years, and since he took over the ballet has performed in Sarasota, of course, but also at New York’s City Center and The Joyce Theatre and Washington’s Kennedy Center among other venues.
Just the fact of being out at a major gathering was a major shift after the pandemic. The tables were livened by floral decorations underwritten by Lauren Walsh and created by Tiger Lilly.
“After Covid it is all a lot happier,” she said of the general atmosphere. “Now it is just so lively.”