New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

Just as Wall Street offices are filling up, New York’s high-flying social life is returning, with cater-waiters, high heels and all the other wonderful and annoying things about being in person to support a cause.

Of course, gatherings are outdoors and in smaller groups, but the masks are largely off, with safety protocols still in place.

The Whitney Museum of American Art offered on-site rapid testing and crudite in individual containers. The Central Park Conservancy’s legendary hat lunch took place at several locations, on two days, after its first round-robin tennis tournament and before an in-person board meeting of the Women’s Committee at the Colony Club.

Rather than being sealed away in a windowless ballroom, the gatherings have a strong sense of neighborhood. Whitney guests had their own crossing guards to help them get past the bikers on their way to a pier in Hudson River Park, just south of a new attraction, Little Island. In Park Slope on Saturday night, kids and dogs yipped as brownstone stoops, a school playground and a closed-off Fifth Avenue became music stages to benefit the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.

As for mood, voices grow low and serious marking the virus’s toll -- the loss of life and jobs, the empty storefronts. But people are also giddy to be out, and bullish on New York.

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

Like the return to office, the return to gala is not a switch to flip. Many events are still virtual, with venue managers and event planners predicting a big comeback in the fall.

This in-between moment reasserts the value of the in-person mingle. Beyond the money they raise and the people they employ -- from tent builders to makeup artists -- these events help New Yorkers connect and make things happen.

“At first, the thing I didn’t miss was galas,” Kathy Wylde said of the lockdown that halted her going out, sometimes to two or three events a night honoring board members of the Partnership for New York City, where she’s president. “And then I realized, it’s where we get all our useful information and relationships. People are less guarded, they say things that they’d never say on Zoom.”

Wylde made her point standing in the South Bronx kitchen of the catering company Great Performances, just a few minutes before a ribbon-cutting with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. The company kept busy during the pandemic preparing meals for the city, corporate clients and cultural venues like Wave Hill. But its new kitchen will also be broken in with nonprofit business, like a dinner for 40 City Harvest supporters at 620 Loft & Garden, and a Roundabout Theatre Company gala for 300 guests in Central Park starring Jane Krakowski.

Executive chef Chris Harkness said plant-based menus are in demand, but provided assurance the pig ‘n blanket will return -- even if Covid protocols mean it could arrive lukewarm in a box instead of hot on a tray. “People really want to see it.”

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

Nelle Miller, co-head of New York at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, met a client face-to-face for the first time on Wednesday. It happened at the Frederick Law Olmsted Luncheon for the Central Park Conservancy, in a corner of the Conservatory Gardens.

“She told me four things, and I’m going back to my office and I’m going to fix those four things,” Miller said. “That’s the kind of thing that only happens in person.”

Miller said she was feeling “the power of combustion,” a rush she attributed to being back in the office, at a lunch socializing with clients and supporting the parks that helped the city get through the pandemic.

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

Allison Mignone’s necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels, inspired by Jules Verne, was the natural ice breaker to share the date the Halls of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History plans to reopen to the public: June 12. She’s been deeply involved in its renovation.

“New York is ready for something really exciting,” Mignone said, wearing an Oscar de la Renta gown she’d bought for a gala last year that was canceled. For the lunch, she’d shortened it, and used the cut-off fabric to make a matching mask and purse.

As for those families who’ve left the city for Florida, “I fully embrace people’s free will to do what they want,” said Mignone, whose husband is hedge fund manager Roberto Mignone. “I’m delighted that New York City is here and we’ll never leave this city and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.”

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

Laurie Tisch arrived to the steps of the Whitney with her dog Sadie -- whose leaps and bounds were only slightly more enthusiastic than the greetings the humans had for each other.

“This is just incredible,” Tisch said. “This is really the opening of New York.”

The Whitney lured Tisch out two nights in a row: Sadie was her date the first night (coming in straight from the Hamptons), for a dedication ceremony for “Day’s End” by David Hammons. The next night, Tisch, mayoral hopeful Ray McGuire, and the artist Fred Wilson were honored, something that was supposed to take place last year.

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

To the 150 guests dining on soul food by Marcus Samuelsson -- jerk chicken, collard greens, corn bread -- Tisch joked she’d use her speech to explain ranked-choice voting.

New York High Society Ditches Their Masks and Revives the Gala

McGuire, a former Citigroup banker and a long-time Whitney trustee, told of riding his bike around the Dayton Art Institute as a kid but not going inside because he didn’t feel like he belonged. The gist wasn’t too far off from what he’s been saying on the campaign trail, pushing for a more inclusive city.

“This morning I was at T-Bone Diner,” in Queens, McGuire said. “I love being out with people, and getting a real sense of what’s taking place in the city.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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