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Dressed for Success : LACMA Fund-Raiser Displays the Fine Art of Party-Giving

September 28, 1998|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Depending on your taste, you could watch a movie screening with Universal Studios Chief Executive Frank Biondi, attend an evening inspired by the Titanic's "final first-class meal" or eat a Parisian feast in tribute to Picasso starting with his favorite aperitif and concluding with a Gertrude Stein dessert.

Eight hundred and ninety-six people chose among those and 47 other parties that took place simultaneously in private homes and workplaces (plus one yacht) across town on Thursday and Friday as part of "Art of the Palate." A fund-raising alternative to the rubber-chicken banquet, the separate events reaped $300,000 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition schedule planned in celebration of the year 2000.

"There's a feeling of intimacy when your host lets you into his world," said committee chair Abby Levy, who spent months organizing the dinners. "It seems to be a concept that draws people." Most tickets sold for $225 and $500; supporters listed their first six choices and were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. But many people paid a $1,000 premium to attend their first-choice dinner, and several people bought tickets to five events. (A few dinners were held on different nights at the hosts' request.)

In a category of its own was a dinner for 14 hosted by Rodin collector Iris Cantor (as in the museum's Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Sculpture Garden). Price tag: $2,500. When the RSVPs started arriving, it became apparent that, regardless of price, this was one of the most popular evenings of all. Cantor agreed to enlarge her gathering to 30.

LACMA President Andrea Rich remarked on the way Cantor's newly built, Louis XVI limestone mansion was so in sync with the scale of the art. But others saw it a different way. "Pinch me to see if I'm still alive," said John Bussey, an early arrival sipping a cocktail in the sculpture garden within full view of Rodin's "Three Shades."

Gladys Valcarso, Cantor's major-domo, invited guests on tours, including an upstairs guest room where First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton once slept.

But LACMA's chairman of the board, Wally Weisman, had a tour of his own. "Go to the Rodin head, turn right and then turn left and open the doors," he instructed. It was the luxurious, wood-paneled terrace room dominated by a portrait of the late Gerald Cantor.

Dinner of lobster tails and scallops, rack of lamb and assorted cakes was served at a long table aglow with silver and crystal.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, museum trustee Stanley Grinstein, co-owner of the Gemini G.E.L. art publishing company, and his architect wife, Elyse, invited several artist friends, including Larry Bell and Ed Moses, to join the mix in their home.

"I've actually talked to all the guests, which is amazing," said Moses, who was strategically seated beneath one of his resin paintings at dinner.

In fact, the chance to talk to perfect strangers must have been nurtured by the dazzling setting: dozens of pieces by artists such as Warhol, Kelly and Stella.

"I came from Omaha for the party," Jane O'Brien told her dinner companion. "A friend faxed me the list of dinners and I wanted this one first." She seemed delighted with her choice. "Every time I look somewhere, I see something new," she said, and that included something that looked exactly like a man's suit hanging on the wall, a piece by Joseph Beuys.

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