“THE SLEEPER MUST AWAKEN.”
On a banner trailing an airplane circling the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago, this message read mysteriously to all who spied it in the soporific sunset heat, including those like me coming to the Renaissance Society’s first benefit under its new director Myriam Ben Salah and orchestrated under an impresario, the grandly sly Italian artist Piero Golia.
After too many buses and trains from the airport, I walked through the deepening dusk under rounded terracotta arches alongside the long drive leading up to the front doors of the 1909 Mediterranean Revival former country club (once restricted). Elegantly attired attendees tumbled out of cars and into the foyer.
“The sleeper must awaken.” A month out of the Venetian milk of dreams, I couldn’t help but wonder what comes after the reverie: Were we to be stirred into consciousness, stripped of our illusions, and reborn into enlightenment? (It is the Renaissance Society, after all.)
Crossing through a long, thickly carpeted hall heavy with luminous chandeliers into a window-lined conservatory, the crowd sipped white and orange wines as nine harpists strummed a medley of songs (glancing over their shoulders, I caught the sheet music for “Siciliana” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). And always whipping through the party, flirting with every guest, tapdancing through the crowd with laughter on his lips and often a megaphone in hand was the endlessly charming dancer, designer, and choreographer Stephen Galloway, billed as the master of ceremonies for the evening and turned out in a sharp white dinner jacket with black lapels.
I was curious what might happen with Golia concocting the festivities and asked Ben Salah (looking radiant in Gucci, one of the event’s sponsors) while we stood astride a towering pyramid of champagne glasses: “You know it’s Piero,” she demurred. “I do know but I’m not supposed to say.”
Moments later, a tuxedoed stilt-walker circled the party with a magnum of champagne in hand. Then she paused and, stepping in place from stilt to stilt with practiced grace, leaned over the champagne tower and let the bottle explode, the bubbly rippling down in a glistening cascade. Artists Theaster Gates and Pope.L mingled not far from new MCA curator Jamillah James, recently of Los Angeles, voluble about this return to Chicago since her student days. After passing around the champagne coupes, we heard around the corner the brassy pomp of horns and strident drums. We were all summoned to promenade down that long, wide carpeted hall, flanked by sixty-six uniformed players from the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, playing a rousing fanfare for all who passed them. Seeing some tender reluctance from the crowd, the dapper Galloway gently escorted the timid with courtly grace, past the thundering sound and into the dining room beyond.
Inside the dining hall were dozens of perfect pink meringue cakes deckled with white frosting, their color matching one of the three pinks frosting the ceiling. Beyond, a long table with over two hundred seats snaked back and forth across the room. On either side were otherworldly tableaux of delectables atop plaster pedestals, all concocted by chef Laila Gohar. Five-foot-long baguettes were accompanied by eighteen-inch cubes of solid yellow butter. Giant salmon curled pinkly on cutting boards alongside a vat of bright green beans and a vat small, almost perfectly round potatoes with bearnaise sauce. At the back of the room, a tiered tower of white asparagus presided.
With unassigned seating, I found myself at a table with collectors John Morace and Tom Kennedy, former Giants linebacker, collector, and (with a show at the FLAG Foundation) recently minted curator Keith Rivers, and actress Robin Tunney, all of us delighted with the subtle flavors and uncanny cinematic vision of our supper.
As the dinner wound down, we meandered back into the darkened hall, the marching band assembled at the far end in the dark as a white screen rippled down from the balcony above them. After a long pause, a humming projector illuminated the darkness with the image of a slow burning sunset gently dipping into a darkling sea. As the sun finished its descent, the screen flickered off and a duo of disco balls filled the room with a galaxy of diamond glitter, a thousand spinning shards of light. It was then that I finally succumbed to the stagecraft of the night, a feeling that sublimed into something sweet and meaningful and artful. Speeches of official gratitude commenced with Ben Salah—moved by the turnout for her first ever big event— lavishing praise in particular on Golia, this “sculptor of situations,” and all the characters from the board and the sponsors and the performers who made this evening something more than just a fundraiser.
Elegantly wrought, at times brassily bombastic, with moments of shimmering magic, humor, and just the right amount of romance, this evening was all those things I like about Golia and his work truly.
As the crowd began to disperse, curators Stephanie Cristello and artist Harold Ancart asked where the afterparty was, but I let those possibilities slip away into the night.