Sarasota Social Diary visits Selby Gardens for its annual Orchid Ball and The Ringling’s “The Greatest Show on Earth”

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Under the tent at Selby Gardens' The 50th Anniversary "Orchid Ball: Infinity" celebrating Yayoi Kusama: A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe.

With newcomers flooding in to Sarasota, it has been a particularly hectic social season. But two of the town’s most popular destinations: Selby Gardens and The Ringling hosted memorable events of their own.

One of the prettiest parties is The Orchid Ball at Selby Gardens which is in the midst of a major expansion. On a smaller scale this year The Ringling hosted a dinner to celebrate the opening of its new gallery to showcase “The Greatest Show on Earth” or how the Feld family bought and took over the circus from the Ringlings in 1967. Visitors are already flocking to both shows.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama in her room in her parents’ home in Matsumoto, c.1957 (Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio, Inc).

At Selby each year chief executive Jennifer Rominiecki and her team marry gardens and art. This year the theme was the relationship between Yayoi Kusama and Georgia O’Keeffe. Limited as it was, it changed the life of the then young Japanese Kusama.

When she was just 26 years old and living in Matsumoto, Japan, Kusama wrote to her heroine Georgia O’Keeffe: “Will you please forgive me to interrupt you while you are very busy and let me introduce myself to you? … I have the most sympathetic or common feeling in your paintings. Though I feel so, I am very far away from where you are and only on the first step of the long difficult life of painter. I should like to ask you would you kindly show me the way to approach this life?”

The letter was sent to Ms. O’Keeffe in New Mexico. The American painter responded, encouraging Kusama to come to the United States, which the young artist did. Though Kusama ultimately returned to Japan where, at the age of 95, she still lives, the time spent in New York was crucial to her work.

Because so much of Ms. Kusama’s work uses dots: “Our earth is only one polka dot among the million stars in the cosmos,” she has said. “Polka dots are a way to infinity,” both the displays in the garden and the dinner itself were the rationale for using round circles as creatively as possible. Chief executive Jennifer Rominiecki and her team certainly turned the annual Orchid Ball into a profusion of dots: in all colors and sizes.

Each outdoor cocktail table had an Ikebana style arrangement using yellow ranunculus.
Cocktails were served outdoors in the garden where a giant tree had been wrapped in red tape and hung with white “polka dot” lights.

Guests had been asked to wear polka dots — if they had them. Whether the ladies shopped in their closets, at stores or online, many worked to comply with the dress code. Umbreen Khalidi Majeed, who runs a design business that bears her name, found a V neck bow tied polka dot crepe gown from Halpern online and paired it with huge dangling earrings. Ms. Khalidi, a Kusama fan, said she loved seeing the artist’s work interpreted in a modern setting.

New York philanthropist Shelby White, who is on the board of the New York Botanical Garden and has a famous garden of her own, has attended the Orchid Ball for several years. This year she found a blue and white polka dot suit for the occasion. “This was one of the prettiest parties I can recall,’’ she said. “The long candlelit tables loaded with forsythia were exquisite and gave the room and the elegant place settings a glow.”

Kusama fan Umbreen Khalidi Majeed.

Shelby White sporting a blue and white polka dot suit for the occasion.

Emily Walsh, who is president of the Sarasota Observer, the local paper her family has owned for nearly three decades, called the Orchid Ball the place to see and be seen. She attended the evening with her husband, Pat Robinson who is deputy manager of the City of Sarasota. And philanthropist Cornelia Matson, a major supporter of Selby, loved the plethora of polka dots on tables and dresses.

The tables were splendid and the evening’s c0-chairs: Liebe Gamble and Ashley Kozel each added special touches to their tables. Ms. Gamble asked her guests to dress in black, white and/or yellow and her table had a profusion of forsythia, pin cushion protea and acacia mimosa. It was punctuated with round balls tied in vibrant polka dot ribbons, reminiscent of Kusama’s pumpkins and polka dot gift boxes: along with yellow framed sunglasses: since sunglasses are a favorite of Ms. Kusama’s.

Co-chair Liebe Gamble, President and Chief Executive Officer of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Jennifer Rominiecki, and Co-chair Ashley Kozel.

Liebe Gamble’s table included round balls tied in polka dot ribbons, reminiscent of Kusama’s pumpkins …

… and polka dot gift boxes: along with yellow framed sunglasses.

Ms. Kozel’s table was themed in red with tall arrangements of red dogwood and James Storie orchids set atop round red mirrors. The tall arrangements alternated with lower arrangements of red dogwood and French tulips collared with of red anthurium.

Ashley Kozel’s table in red.
Round tables for the 500 guests were in rows where colors alternated between yellow and red.

In the gallery itself one could read the letter that Kusama sent Georgia O’Keeffe as well as the older artist’s response. And there is a glorious Kusama work: “Infinity of Dots” that has been lent by the art collector Keith Monda, the former head of Coach Inc. and a longtime Sarasota resident.

Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity of Dots,” from Keith D. Monda’s collection.

The outdoor exhibition includes a display of circles filled with beds of purple petunias prompts an association with O’Keeffe’s passion for rock and sand but also with Kusama’s dots. A white fence outdoors is punctuated with Neoregelia Bromeliads and suggests the repetitive nature of Kusama’s work.

Exhibition photos of Yayoi Kusama's A Letter to Georgia O'Keeffe.
Scenes from Yayoi Kusama: A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe at the Selby.

Nets of red bromeliads.

A polka-dotted Yayoi Kusama paradise.

Selby has always been popular in Sarasota but never more than in recent years as Ms. Rominiecki has raised money to upgrade and expand the garden. The Orchid Ball has helped attract guests and raise money for her ambitious program which has already succeeded in creating a new welcome center, parking space and a popular restaurant. This year both Selby and the Ringling Museum were mentioned in the New York Times travel piece on Sarasota.

Pauline Wamsler and David Sales.
Ariane Dart and Don Patterson.
Taylor and Erica Aultman.
Chris and Kirk Voelker.
Carol Kalikow, Gail Morrison Morganroth, Joel Morganroth, Katherine Martucci, and Marcy and Michael Klein.
Belle and Greg Stikeleather.
George Adley and Deborah Blue.
Elizabeth Moore, Ann Davy Holly, and Jay Logan.
Jacob Sorg and Jean Weidner Goldstein.
Elisabeth Waters.
John and Fran LaCivita.
Glenn Reith and Renee Phinney.
Mary Evelyn Guyton and Richard Dorfman.
Ashley Kozel and Marko Radisic; Liebe and Billy Gamble.
L. to r.: Ashley Kozel and Marko Radisic; Liebe and Billy Gamble.
Nikki and Jeff Sedacca.
Matt and Diana Buchanan.
United States Representative Vern Buchanan and wife Sandy Buchanan.
Senator Joe Gruters and wife Sydney Gruters.
Sepi and Ryan Ackerman.
Allison and Tom Luzier.
Curtis Jordan and Paige Peterson.
Dawn Spencer and Belle Stikeleather.
Catherine and Michael Farello.
Liebe Gamble and Katie Jones.
Richard and Ellen-Sandor.
Patrick Attwater and Zoe Waldron.
Samantha Gholar and friend.
Sandi Casey and Chandler Pennington.
Terri and Michael Klauber.
Vickie Oldham and Darwin Davis.
Terri Klauber Liebe Gamble, and Emily Stroud.
Peggy Allen.

Meanwhile guests at the Ringling could visit the new exhibit tied to the era when the Feld family bought the circus from John Ringling North. The first floor of the circus exhibit still wows with an enormous miniature circus created by the late circus lover Howard Tibbals. But perhaps the most fun element in the new exhibit is an eight-minute show that allows visitors to see acts that were popular in the 50-year period of Feld ownership.

Ringling executive director Steven High told the guests that tickets were already sold out for the opening day. Ken Feld, Irvin Feld’s son, recalled that when his father had approached John Ringling North about selling the circus, Mr. Ringling North hung up. Several weeks later, he called back and told him he was interested in a deal.

Cocktails outside The Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center.
Inside, visitors watch “The Show” in The Greatest Show On Earth gallery.
Walking through The Greatest Show On Earth.

The Howard Bros. Circus in the Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling.
Miniatures from Dunn Circus Model, c. 1940-1990. Harold Dunn, a model builder, mentored Mr. Tibbals and gave him advice on model building. Mr. Dunn also created an entire model circus and much of it is on display in the Tibbals Learning Center.

The guests, including art collector Flora Major and Sarah Pappas, past president of Manatee Community College and the William and Marie Selby Charitable Foundation as well as Richard and Ellen Sandor, who have a major photography collection, dined under a tent overlooking Sarasota Bay.

David and Mary Benfer with Diane Egner and Sandy Rief
David and Mary Benfer with Diane Egner and Sandy Rief.
Warren and Marie Colbert
Warren and Marie Colbert.
Taylor Albin, Rebecca Donelson, Dean Kelley
Taylor Albin, Rebecca Donelson, and Dean Kelley.
Lisa High, Sylvia Barber, Steven High
Lisa High, Sylvia Barber, and Steven High.
Bob Cole and Marie McKee with Michael Corrigan.
Judy and Steve Shank with Betsy Winder and Jeffrey Hotchkiss.
Richard and Ellen Sandor.
Dr. Joe Militello and Sarah Pappas.
David Berry and David Otterness.
Burt and Kelly Romanoff.
Kenneth Feld, Christine Goodall, and Juliette Feld Grossman.
Sabrina Lowe, Nicole Zimmerman, and Stephen Yaros from Feld Entertainment Inc.
Janice and Gary Mobley
Glenn Hendrick.
Tent on the campiello along Sarasota Bay next to Ca’ d’Zan, John Ringling’s 100-year-old mansion.

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