The average benefit is filled with a particular kind of emphatic speech. “So nice to see you!”, “How are you?”, “Tell me about what you’re up to!” I actually enjoy this kind of small talk networking, but when that’s all there is, you can leave feeling a little empty. Ideally, a benefit facilitates the introduction of few new contacts and has you feeling inspired about the cause.
That happened this afternoon at the annual benefit luncheon for ArtTable, a nonprofit with the mission of advancing professional women’s leadership in the visual arts. The event brings together some of the city’s most powerful women in the arts. Whereas some galas simply screen a short video of their honorees, this one invites their honorees to give speeches. This year’s were significant.
The first winner was Amy Sadao, who worked as the executive director of Visual AIDS for ten years before taking the helm of Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2012. Sadao began on a challenging note for a room full of arts lovers, recalling the activist sentiment that art doesn’t have the power to change anything. She was referring to policy, but from there she went on to give a moving speech describing how art uniquely challenged the ways people think. As the 2014 recipient of the New Leadership Award, Sadao closed by saying she considered the award an “encouragement” to continue.
Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of BAM, was the afternoon’s Keynote speaker and delivered a surprisingly pointed speech outrage about the arts having been underfunded and undervalued by Republican policies. This, despite the fact that it’s the single largest driver of tourism to New York City. “And New Yorkers are hungry for culture”, she told us before launching into a series of examples of thirst. “People will sit in a theater for six hours watching Macbeth in Japanese, sometimes with subtitles sometimes without subtitles,” she said, prompting much laughter. Brooks marshalled everybody in the audience to stand up to developers and preserve arts neighborhoods from turning into “Anywhere, USA”. “Every person in this room needs to be an advocate for the arts.” Although her examples of New York’s great cultural assets didn’t exactly line up with ours (she cited the Alice Aycock sculptures on Park Avenue, and the new Brooklyn Cultural District as a thriving arts neighborhood) political sentiments don’t usually surface at benefit events.
Then we heard from Marguerite Steed Hoffman, a former gallery director, museum worker and philanthropist, who won an award for distinguished service to the visual arts. She’s a (very generous) trustee of the Dallas Museum of art, a collector, and widow of Robert Hoffman, a founder of National Lampoon magazine. Hoffman also battled for Planned Parenthood in a red state, and works to provide better AIDS treatment in South Africa. She also has a sense of humor. “Leadership is like pornography. It’s hard to define, but when you are in its powerful and alluring presence, you know it”.
For Hoffman, being a leader isn’t about how many boards you’re on, or how much you give to a cause; there are all too many “sweet, well-intentioned” people who give without a clear idea of what they care about. Leadership, she said, is about identifying what matters most to you and putting whatever you can at stake. “How can I tip the needle on that issue, and what would I give to do that?”
For all the galas which honor celebrity guests, the glittering world of New York museums, and the usual BS press line which so often chucks out the mission come fundraising time, it was an acceptance speech which, for once, sounded like it meant something.