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Event planner J. Ben Bourgeois creates wow moments

A gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to open an exhibition hall is the latest in a long career of lavish and unique celebrations for the business and arts communities around the world. And he loves what he does.

September 19, 2010|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times

"It's going to be great," J. Ben Bourgeois says of his next big thing — the gala that will launch the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Technically, it's incredibly challenging. Artistically, it's like taking a collection and bringing it to life."

Could he be a little more specific? The invitation to the Sept. 25 "unmasking" of the 45,000-square-foot temporary exhibition hall designed by Renzo Piano offers tables of 10 for $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 and lists the inaugural shows: "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," "Eye for the Sensual: Selections from the Resnick Collection" and "Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915." But that's about it.

"Do you want me to lose my job?" asks Bourgeois, who didn't compile a 20-year resume of eye-popping celebrations for high-profile clients in business and the arts by being indiscreet. "You are only as good as the people you know," he says, and he's not going to spoil their fun. "The more surprises you have, the more successful the event."

A favorite example is a fundraiser at the Louvre. After cocktails and dinner in the galleries, guests proceeded to the glass pyramid, which had been draped in black and hung with black crystal chandeliers for a performance by Duran Duran. When the customary lights went back on, the celebrants ascended the pyramid's escalator to a post-party at an elegant café nearby.

The Parisian event is one of many productions documented in photographs on walls of a conference room at Bourgeois' office on Larchmont Boulevard. For the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, he created a light installation inspired by artist Dan Flavin. A splashy event at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City featured projected images that played on similarities between the human eye and the camera. A private party in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, called for building a ballroom — and rebuilding it with lightning speed after a hurricane blew it down.

But much of Bourgeois' exhibition space is devoted to contemporary art from his collection. An abstract painting by James Hayward, an installation of translucent drinking straws by Tara Donovan and a five-panel screen by Ed Ruscha with the phrase "I remembered to forget to remember" floating across a red and yellow sky are in the conference room. Photographs, paintings and sculptures by other artists pop up in every available spot in offices, hallways and bathrooms.

"Art relates to everything I do," Bourgeois says. "It inspires me, especially the Minimalist stuff that makes something out of nothing."

Bourgeois debuted at LACMA in 2008 with the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. Now he's gearing up for the Sept. 25 gala. And once again, he's working with Jane Nathanson, a LACMA trustee who chaired the BCAM gala and heads the 11-member host committee for the affair honoring the Resnicks, who funded the $54-million building that bears their names.

Bourgeois got the job partly because he had already proved himself at the museum, Nathanson says. "Ben really is fantastic at what he does. He's a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor who keeps calm amid all the craziness, all the personalities and all the hysteria about last-minute details."

He also understands timing and the importance of "certain wow moments," she says. "For BCAM, my idea was to have a wall that would drop and reveal the new museum. Ben figured out a way to do it." At the appointed moment, a fabric wall of the gala tent was released from the top and it fell to the ground, accompanied by gasps from the audience.

Nathanson promises wow moments of a completely different kind at the upcoming event. Like Bourgeois, she won't reveal them. But she doesn't mind saying that singer Christina Aguilera will be among the evening's entertainers — and that most of the tickets have been sold, bringing in more than $4.5 million.

When Bourgeois talks about producing such extravaganzas, he calls himself a cheerleader who "keeps things together, keeps the whole gang happy and makes sure the project makes sense as art and an event." But in the next breath, he rattles off a far more complex list of duties.

"It's somebody else's job to get people to the door," he says. "It's my job to figure out how to park them, how to permit the event, how many lanes of traffic you need to close. You have to cocktail people, feed them, entertain them. You have to ask if you are going to use an existing structure or build one. If you build one, you have to provide heating and air conditioning, conform to building and safety codes."

"We do food and wine tastings with committees, do a lot of tech stuff to make things work and figure out how to hide things that guests shouldn't see," he says. "In this coming event, you don't want to look at 60 projectors, so how do you hide them? They create a lot of heat. How do you cool them?"

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