Walking towards the light

Featured image
Behold, the traditional Tibetan Buddhist shrine room at Alice Kandell’s Upper East Side penthouse.

Walk into Alice Kandell’s airy Upper East Side penthouse and you walk into light. High ceilings, white marble floors, landscaped terraces, greenhouse glass: a clean modern look, an elegant New York vibe. One of Juan Montoya’s early efforts. Down a staircase, an art filled chamber leads to a darkened room. Faces of Buddha’s glisten in candlelight. This is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist shrine. Enter in silence. It is a meditative experience. Transcendent. It has brought art historians to tears.

The chamber which leads to Alice’s Tibetan Buddhist shrine.

Alice is one of the most significant collectors of Tibetan religious art in this hemisphere. Part of the reason she gained access to these ethereal pieces is knowing they will remain thusly enshrined, en masse, as they are meant to be, in a small temple or aristocratic home.

To ensure they always will remain so, Alice gave more than two hundred historic Tibetan Buddhist art objects — gilt bronze statuaries, paintings of spiritual realms, ritual implements, furniture, and textiles — to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), which will exhibit it exactly as it is in Alice’s home.

This is her second museum bequest. She gifted The Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, in 2010.

Alice Kandell.

On the eve of their departure, Alice invited 50 friends to her home to send off her treasures. MIA’s Dr. Katherine Luber, Mia’s Nivin and Duncan MacMillan director and president, flew in for the presentation. Attendees included many members of the Mia’s board of directors, scholars, curators, as well as Jonah Bokaer, Simon Van Booy, Catherine Crockett and Brian Weston, Isabella Rupa De Conti-Mikkilineni, Michèle Gerber Klein, Helen Little, Ken Lipper, Arthur Lubow, Ellie Manko, Geeta Mehta, Liane Pei, Father Philip Rodko, Dr. Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, John Bigelow Taylor, Barbara Tober, and Amei Wallach.

Guests were led downstairs in small groups. In the ante room, Father Philip Rudko, a Russian Orthodox Priest who has guided Alice’s collecting journey, greeted us. Then, we stepped silently into the candlelit shrine.

Father Philip Rodko.

“You’re not supposed to look at any one thing,” Father Philip explained. “They should blur together in a meditative experience. Overwhelming, in another dimension. The original temples were huge, statues upon statues, 20 to 30 feet tall.”

Forty years ago, a friend brought Alice to his Brooklyn home. Surrounded by rows of Tibetan treasures, “Suddenly,” she said, “I felt at home. It blew me away.“

Detail of Alice’s shrine room.

As it turned out, he was ready to divest. Alice boarded up a window and brought them in. Thus it began. Thus it continues:

“Phil would call me and say, ‘I’ve got a piece! I’ve finally gotten it!,’” Alice told me. “I’d say ‘I’ll come and pick it up,’ and he’d say, ‘No. I have to live with it for a month.‘ When it came to me, that’s exactly how I felt. It becomes part of you.” Tibetan refugees often left with little else but these religious treasures. When they sold them to survive, they wanted them kept in a sacred space.

Father Philip understood this. He had grown up in a New Jersey community centered around three Russian Orthodox churches and a Tibetan Buddhist Temple.

Alice is not a Buddhist or particularly religious. This just speaks to her. “It’s not a church. It’s a step back into history of what was. Tibet is gone,” she told me, of the Chinese systematic destruction of that religion and culture. “Temples were dynamited; artwork melted down for precious metals and stones; young boys sent to China for education; women forced to marry Chinese soldiers.”

Alice Kandell with a villager and horse in Sikkim, May 1971. Photo: Courtesy the Library of Congress

“People ran into the monasteries and grabbed what they could to save it from being dynamited. But, most of it was. They brought with them what was theirs. We went to the Dalai Lama. He said, ‘We need help. We are very happy to have people save it for us in these shrines.’

“These shrines don’t seem to exist any place else. This is what’s left. When you walk in, you’re going back 200, 300, 400 years ago. Otherwise, you can go to museums and see the pieces individually.”

Barbara Tober, Bradley Straucher, and Dr. Michael Fennelly.

The night’s euphoria didn’t end at Alice’s shrine. Upstairs, when the presentation and dinner ended and the room thinned, on a raised marble platformed/stage, out rolled the baby grand. Dr. Michael Fennelly took his seat. He, too, is at the top of his game, a world class pianist. Studying George Gershwin’s notes, Fennelly completed the choral version of Rhapsody in Blue, and was knighted in Spain for doing so.

Fennelly has performed with Renée Fleming. As the staff pianist for the Metropolitan Opera, he collaborated with Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Itzhak Perlman and Lorin Maazel. He also conducts. He and his wife, soprano Megan Weston, co-founded the non-profit Athena Music Foundation, to bring dynamic music to diverse audiences. This night, he was ours, artistry flowing from his fingers into every corner of the room. He even gave us a lesson in master phraseology.

Then, it was over. The next day, the movers arrived. “They’re tearing down the shrine room,” Alice told me. “It’s like tearing my heart out.”

“Now, you’ll have an empty room to fill again,” I reminded her of her decision to move into collecting Russian Icons with Father Philip. “That’s right,” she replied. “I just keep buying and giving it away.”

Liane Pei, Ariel Russo, Catherine Heald, Ellie Manko, and Dr. Katherine Luber.
Donald Lopez, Alice Kandell, Isabella De Conti, and Elena Pakhoutova.
John Nubian, Elena Pakhoutova, Liane Pei, and Nico Simoni.
Pujan Gandhi, Virajita Singh, Peggy Grieve, and Leni Moore.
Virajita Singh and Ramesh Kapoor.
Michéle Gerber Klein, Jonah Bokaer, and Helen Little.
John Bigelow Taylor, Alice Kandell, Donald Lopez, and Dianne Dubler.
Leni and David Moore.
Bill McGrath, Michèle Gerber Klein, and Ken Lipper.
Peggy Grieve, Brian Weston, and Katherine Crockett.

Another night, another beautiful New York apartment, another philanthropist’s top notch collection. Jackie Weld Drake was co-hosting a pre-party for Casita Maria’s 89th Fiesta! Gala (Oct. 10) with George Corton, Darlyn Portes, and Sissi Fleitas in Jackie’s grand, yet cozy Park Avenue residence. The picture of Old New York elegance, the pictures filling its walls came from her collection of American Illustrator Art.

George Corton, Jackie Weld Drake, and Darlyn Portes.

We wondered what she was buying lately. “I moved into fashion illustrators thinking they were cheaper,” she laughed. “But truth to say, maybe not! My late husband knew what he was doing. But you could probably sell me anything!” A winningly disarming reply. But, Jackie could probably write the book. She already wrote Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim, her interview tapes, the backbone of the documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, that featured Jackie. She’s lectured at South Beach’s Wolfsonian Museum, Palm Beach’s The Colony and Four Arts clubs.

Lately, she’s branched into Murano glass. “It’s fascinating,” she said, “because it’s not just who did it, but the companies who produced it, most famously, Seguso.” The glass, like everything she buys, share a sensibility, mixing beautifully in her homes and, one assumes, storage closets.

Yes, she loves it. “But, you can’t just collect what you love,” she advises. “You have to have a brain about it, invest in the quality and integrity of the piece. Anyone can have a third rate Dutch Landscape. I prefer a first rate American Illustrator.” That’s a collection, like Alice’s, that’s museum worthy.

Inside Jackie’s grand, yet cozy Park Avenue residence.

That said, Jackie walked me over to the new Casita Maria Executive Director, Felix Urrutia. Born and raised in the Lower East Side, an Urban Planner by training, non-profit is Felix’ calling. “With Casita Maria, I can give back to a community that mirrors my own upbringing,” he told me. “My parents were working class folks who instilled values. And I have dedicated myself to working for communities that look like me.”

Casita Maria returns Urrutia to the South Bronx where he worked in the Police Athletic League. “Twenty years later,” he rued, “things have gotten worse! We are still considered the poorest congressional district in America. I’m tired of hearing that! Our young people seem to have more anxiety and general mental health issues. Years of trauma and stress, then Covid, have made them angrier.”

Casita Maria Executive Director Felix Urrutia, Gail Heidel, Michéle Gerber Klein, and Christie Alcid.

Urrutia continued, “Still, what really defines the community is grit: our hard-working, law abiding citizens, our mothers who get up every day, get their kids to school, then go to work. That hustle and bustle exists simultaneously with a degree of lawlessness.

“Our parents look to Casita for safety and cultural enrichment for their children. They see art as a vehicle for their kids to do better, be calmer, defuse a little bit of their anger, get engaged and celebrate the community.”

Jackie Weld Drake, Estrellita Brodsky, and Martha Bograd.

Celebrating Casita at Jackie’s were Board Members Martha Bograd, Michéle Gerber Klein, Alberto Mariaca, Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, and Jean Shafiroff. Also there: Michael Hughes, Executive Director of the Wolfsonian, as well as Estrellita Brodsky, Susan Cheever, Anencia Dixon, Susan Gutfreund, Ann Nitze, Marc Rosen, Victor Roquette, Daisy Soros, and Barbara Tober, and Casita Maria Artistic Director Gail Heidel.

The gala will honor Grammy winning producer Nelson Albareda, Dr. Ramon Tallaj, the founder of SOMOS network, and Ambassador David and Jennifer Fischer (fiesta@casitamaria.org).

It’s a night of sensational gowns hot on the dance floor. “I always want the party to be the most fun in New York,” says Jackie. “And I don’t think anything can beat us for glamour and music!”

Terry Corbett, Martha Bograd, Christie Alcid, and Anencia Dixon.
Alberto Mariaca, Catherine Bryan, and Mai Hallingby.
Eduardo Navarro, Sissi Fleitas, Victor Roquette, Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, and Darlyn Portes,
Michéle Gerber Klein, Sharon Hoge, and Sergio Orozco.
Liliana Cavendish, Marc Rosen, Margo Langenberg, and Juan Montoya.
Don Willmott, Ellen Willmott, and Sissi Fleitas.
L. to r.: Christopher Walling and Barbara Tober; Jean Shafiroff and Daisy Soros.
Jeanne Lawrence, with Tom and Bonnie Strauss.
Victor Roquette, Sissi Fleitas, and Sergio Orozco.
Bill Beetlestone and Mary Hilliard.
Martha Bograd and Tana Dye.
Elisa Meyer and Michael Hughes.
Ann Nitze and Christopher Mason.
Peggy Siegal and Steven Aronson.
Marc Rosen and Susan Gutfreund.

Photographs by John Sanderson/AnnieWatt.com (Casita Maria)

Recent Posts