For the past three years when Sarasota’s Selby Gardens has held its annual Orchid Ball, the evening announced the opening of a show that marries art and gardens. Its debut was “Warhol: Flowers in the Factory” followed last year by: “Flowers and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams: ” This year it was “Gauguin: Voyage to Paradise.”
The garden, which sits on Sarasota Bay, was transformed into a Polynesian escape. When New York philanthropist and garden devote Shelby White, entered the conservatory at Selby that had been transformed into an impressionistic version of Polynesia, she found it “a triumph” she said.
To create the atmosphere of the islands, Selby’s design team built a waterfall dripping down a series of dugout canoes filled with orchids, ferns and anthuria. Farther along is a bridge flanked by cocoanuts filed with orchids standing on long bamboo poles. The garden team led by chief horticulturist Mike McLaughlin and orchid expert Angel Lara, created a fire pit filled with scarlet bromeliads. Hanging cocoanuts filled with orchids drip from wood beams. (the garden is known for its epiphytes) And at the end of the conservatory a recreation of a stone tiki stood guard over the conservatory. The team had built it using a plywood skeleton that they then covered in stucco.
With the garden transformed into a rainbow of color, the sellout crowd at the ball dressed appropriately. The color palate matched the richness of the display.
Guests were so busy ogling one another that many decided they would return for a lengthy visit to the exhibition. The evening’s cocktails were served on the lawn where guests could recline on white sofas, canopied in gauze and watch the show.
It was a strikingly chic evening. Forget black. This is Florida with a Polynesian theme. Black may be the de riguer uniform of New York evenings, but Gauguin’s palate prompted some of the glamour set to opt for pinks, reds and purples. In fact the four co chairs: Katie Hollingsworth, Emily Steel, Billy Gamble and Ashley Kozel were all in long brightly colored evening dresses.
Pauline Wamsler, vice chairman of the garden, too opted for red, looking stunning in a long sleek evening gown. A love of gardens runs in her family. Her great great grandmother Berthe Honore Palmer came to Sarasota from Chicago following the death of her husband Potter Palmer and bought up 9000 acres south of town for cattle and farming. Pauline’s late mother Berthe Wamsler was a garden lover and a board member of the New York Botanical Garden. Her sister Caroline is currently a member.
Guests got into the mood of the evening. Margaret Wise, Texas born and a doyenne of Sarasota social and philanthropic life, even tucked white and purple orchids in her hair. Bernice Hebda, in a white and beige printed caftan, said she had missed the ball last year because of a volleyball tournament, but was determined not to miss it this year. Board member Katherine Martucci wore a dress of soft pink lace. “It is an effervescent group of people,’’ Mrs. Martucci said. “You feel that you are sparkling. There is an energy about the evening,’’ she said. “Everyone wants to be there. It is such a party atmosphere.”
Of course, not everyone went with pastels. Janelle Beruff chose a strapless white and blue stripped evening gown while Allison Luzier, a real estate executive who is married to prominent Sarasota lawyer Tom Luzier, was leaving the following day for New York where her cousin Bibhu Mahapatra was set to show his new collection. She wore a long black satin skirt with sequins and a white shirt he designed.
The tables were laden with vases full of roses, hydrangeas and lilies, flowers arranged in an ombré fashion from blush to a hot raspberry pink.
To maintain the Polynesian theme, the first course of ceviche with mango and pineapple arrived in a scallop shell. It was followed by chimichurri beef. The dessert: a mango mousse was served in a chocolate conch shell.
Over dinner Chief executive Jennifer Rominiecki announced that she had already raised $31 million of then $92 million she will need to expand and upgrade Selby.
To smooth the political way to that goal, she has been working with local politician and there were a passel at dinner including Newt Newton with his wife Melissa and Congressman Vern Buchanan with his wife Sandy.
Some members of the art world who played a role in helping bring art to Selby could not be at the ball. James Snyder, director emeritus at the Israel Museum, initially learned about the exhibitions program from his mother in law, Bernice Davis who has long lived in Sarasota. And each year the museum has loaned works for the exhibition. This year, James and his wife Tina did arrive for a dinner preceding the event. They actually came over with Anne Fisher, widow of Jerome Fisher, the founder of Nine West.
At a luncheon the following day, Mette Gauguin, the great granddaughter of Gauguin and a guest of honor at the dinner, recalled that two decades ago, when the newly christened cruise shipped christened: “Paul Gaugin” made one of its first voyages around the South seas, she and 52 other descendants of the artist were guests.
“It was interesting to meet so many family members,’’ said Ms. Gauguin, a petite, elegant blond who is a printmaker and lives in Oxford, England. “Some of my relatives did not like having that name, but it has opened up many doors for me and I have traveled all over the world,“ said Ms. Gauguin.
During those travels, Ms. Gauguin sought to learn about the life of her great grandfather. She even visited the remote Marquesa Islands, a two day journey by boat from Tahiti. In search of tranquility Paul Gauguin had fled to the Marquesas from Tahiti. It was there that he died in 1903 and where he is buried.
Descendants of some of the artist’s young brides are still alive. “We came by boat, and I was introduced to some of my relatives,” Ms. Gauguin recalled. “When we met, I invited them back to the ship. It turned out all they wanted to do was to raid the mini bar in my room.”
The lunch was one of many celebrations surrounding the ball that has become one of the Sarasota’s most popular and extravagant evenings. The 550 tickets sold out months before the event and lured guests from New York, Tampa, Miami and even London for the show.
Guests had the chance to stroll the gardens and note the plaques with quotes from Gauguin’s journals and check out the Tiki sentinels standing watch. On the walk toward Sarasota bay, visitors could also find several lean-tos, and at the other extreme end of the garden, they could check out a hut that stands in a stretch of sand evoking how life must have felt lived under a thatched roof in such a remote place.
To give a sense of Paul Gauguin’s work, the garden was able to borrow a number of woodcuts and lithographs for the show. Even without color, they were surprisingly evocative of the languid and sensual life that Gauguin entered when he moved to Polynesia. Carol Ockman, Selby’s curator at large managed to borrow a number of works from museums around Williams College where she teaches. The Israel Museum lent a work as did local art collectors Keith and Linda Monda.
But at least on opening night, the guests were so preoccupied with the gardens and the dinner that many said they would return to study the works more closely.
The dance floor was packed and even prominent historian and garden critic, Robin Lane Fox, who had flown in from London for the show and reviewed for The Financial Times, could not resist getting out and rocking a bit which, he said, reminded him of his days at Oxford.
Selby is just one of many institutions in Sarasota that like to celebrate and raise money.
The Ringling College of Art and Design held its annual “Avant Garde” gala in March: the theme this year was “Magical Evening,” asking students and guests to dress in a magical fashion. That meant plenty of fawns, elves, and witches strolling through cocktail hour, and magical as they might be, they all dined and danced.
Ringling has an impressive record. It has had graduates involved in films in the animated films category of Academy Award nominations almost every year since the category was created in 2002.
The evening’s goal is to raise money for students who don’t have the financial resources to pay for their last semesters—or as the school puts it: “to cross the finish line.”
Marci Klein, who chaired the dinner with her husband Michael, stuck to black and her entire table wore matching Ringling is Magical t-shirts. Others tucked their fairy wings behind their backs at diner and took off their witches hates.
Among the guests were Margie and Chuck Barancik, Jay and Holly Logan, Veronica Brady, Terri Hansen, Kelly Romanoff, Steve and Inna Snyder, Emily Walsh, Bart and Kelly Romanoff and Dean Eisner and Jeannie Lascelle.
Avant garde is one of the town’s most creative events since students dress up to match the theme. For many of them, it was “thank heavens for Amazon” as one of them put it so that they could go on line and order costumes. Others made their own original outfits: from witches to fairies to magicians. There was a plethora of fairy wings-which made seating at some of the tables a tad difficult — but fun.
Led by Michael Klauber, who owns the popular Michael’s on East restaurant, guests donated a record $325,000 toward the scholarship fund. Then it was on to a raucous evening of dancing and partying. And there was lots of buzz about the opening next year of the Sarasota Museum of Art which will be run by the school. As Ringling President Larry Thompson once explained to me: since Ringling is not the kind of a school that will have a football team to bind graduates once they leave, a museum can be just as effective at eliciting that kind of graduate loyalty.
Photographs by Cliff Roles