The party at the Whitney Museum of American Art Tuesday night started on a long blue carpet outside the building, a nod to Hollywood that reached its apotheosis over dinner with a pre-taped ceremony -- complete with reaction shots of Matt Damon at the real Oscars -- honoring trustee and real-estate investor Neil Bluhm.
Also spliced in, applauding the Chicagoan who helped relocate the Whitney to a new building downtown: President Donald Trump, Michelle Obama and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Meanwhile, Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, was a fabulous Billy Crystal stand-in. Laurie Tisch, the museum’s co-chair with Bluhm, handled the inevitable mixed-up envelope stunt with aplomb. And those Bluhm grandkids: if only the audience had been filled with casting agents.
Actually, the Whitney has cast Neil Bluhm’s daughter Leslie as a trustee, bringing to the board a social entrepreneur who founded Chicago Cares -- and indicating how the museum is embracing its social mission these days.
"Art creates a dialogue for the challenges and contradictory ideas of our time," Neil Bluhm said in remarks during dinner. "Here at the Whitney, our artists, and in particular, our Biennial artists, are not only recording our conflicting society, they’re using art as a hammer with which to shape it."
That much was clear as guests checked out the Biennial at the start of the evening.
"It’s about Miami and climate change and what’s going to happen," Brooke Garber Neidich said, standing in front of Jon Kessler’s multi-media sculpture "Evolution."
"I get it," said Henry Cornell, another trustee.
Nearby was an Occupy Museums installation labeling BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink as the "pioneer of the mortgage-backed securities market, the collapse of which triggered the 2008 financial crisis," a narrative Neidich took issue with.
"I don’t think Larry Fink caused the financial crisis of 2008," she said, acknowledging that the museum was built in part by contributions from donors who made their fortunes in finance. What matters more, she said, is that "we’ve all embraced" the work being included in the show, on the premise that art can criticize and is not just intended as solace.
The gathering, which raised $5.1 million, had its share of finance types, including Marc Lasry (making his first visit to the Whitney downtown), Joshua Harris, Anne Dias, David Stockman, Andrew Tisch, Prakash Melwani, James Gordon, J. Michael Evans and Tom Tuft. And Katie Holmes, dressed by Michael Kors, who donated meals to a United Nations program in honor of the event.
Other than art, the event’s sensory pleasures included a tequila bar in the elevator and Chris Norton crooning "Puttin’ on the Ritz" and "Just a Gigolo" over dessert.
Still, guests stayed focused on social issues. Barbara Lee, wife of trustee Jonathan O. Lee, earned attention for her purse that lit up with the words "Pro-Choice" on one side and "Nasty Woman" on the other. She said she’d purchased the Michele Pred creation at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery.
Museum president Rich DeMartini dined on short rib with quinoa next to Biennial artist Aliza Nisenbaum. "She’s more important than me," said DeMartini of the Mexico City native, known for her portraits of immigrants.
Sitting at a table with the Biennial co-curator Christopher Lew, Robert Soros praised the museum for flexing its muscle on freedom of speech by not taking down Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the exhibition after calls to do so. "You’ve got to accept the controversy," Soros said.