ANNE PASTERNAK’S FIRST COUPLE OF YEARS as director of the Brooklyn Museum have been interesting ones, though not always in the sense she might have preferred. A few short months into her tenure, the firebrand former head of Creative Time caught heat from protesters for renting out the space to the Sixth Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit. It was a decision they saw—with some justification—as incompatible with the institution’s commitment to local audiences in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. Following intense negotiation, another event, the Brooklyn Community Forum on Anti-Gentrification and Displacement, repurposed the museum again, this time as a platform for heated debate around an all-too-familiar clash of high culture and everyday economics. And while the institution seemed to have secured something of a coup last April with the appointment of Nancy Spector as deputy director and chief curator, the former Guggenheim creative supremo lasted less than a year on Eastern Parkway before returning to her longtime former home uptown.
It was thus hard to ignore the fact that one of the two honorees Monday night at the museum’s Seventh Annual Brooklyn Artists Ball fundraiser had himself been a lightning rod for controversy around New York redevelopment. Rapper and producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean was criticized for an arguably ill-considered project in the Bronx last August, an art fair titled No Commission. Offering works for sale without dealer participation, thereby putting earnings straight into artists’ pockets, the event certainly had its plus points, but the specter of gentrification again proved disruptive. By throwing a party in a property newly purchased by developer Keith Rubenstein, Dean exposed himself to accusations of insensitivity, with Rubenstein having stepped in it pretty firmly the year before by organizing his own velvet-rope event with the less-than-tactful “Bronx is Burning” theme. Add to such missteps a distinct shortage of local involvement in the fair, and activist groups such as Take Back the Bronx had plenty of fuel for their fires.
Still, as the debate over a certain canvas in the Whitney Biennial continues to demonstrate, such issues—and the people behind them—are invariably more complex than we might prefer. Dean’s efforts in the Bronx may have been ill-informed (and one does get the impression that their shortcomings were the result of naïveté rather than greed), but he can claim back substantial credibility as cofounder, with his wife and fellow honoree, Alicia Keys, of the AIDS charity Keep a Child Alive. He also demonstrated a not insignificant ability to fire up a distinctly multigenerational dance floor. Before we got there, though, there were, of course, cocktails and dinner, the former distinguished by the presence of Pearly’s Beauty Shop, a popup “full-service unisex shop art installation and party all in one” by artist Swoon that kitted out a long line of attendees in elaborate makeup and headgear. Among those doing the rounds minus fanciful war paint was David Byrne, fresh from a rally at City Hall in support of the threatened National Endowment for the Arts.
Another musician, one Lenny Kravitz, appeared only later, somehow already ensconced and holding court at a central table in the museum’s third-floor Beaux-Arts Court when I arrived—I’d worried rather early—for dinner. My own companions for the meal were Lisa Small, the museum’s senior curator of European art, and artist and actor Gregory Siff, who had his mother, Maryanne, and collector Beth Redmond in tow. I complimented Siff on his impressive collection of pendants and he launched into an account of their varied and colorful origins: “This is a gold bar I made, and this I got from a graffiti crew I run with in LA. Oh, and this die is from my dad—he used to roll.” His enthusiasm was infectious, as was his genuine excitement at spotting Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite; Redmond, however, remained impassive. Small, for her part, was concerned primarily by Pasternak’s promise in her effusive speech that the curator would be conducting after-dinner tours of the Georgia O’Keeffe show that she’d coordinated—without having warned her in advance.
Returning downstairs I found Dean in full flow and the crowd commendably raucous, bellowing along to an ever-catchier sequence of pop-dance bangers—a stark contrast with Kelsey Lu’s plaintive musical interlude during dinner. (“I cried though the whole thing,” claimed an emotional Pasternak.) Keys didn’t perform but did join her husband in the booth for some whoops and fist-pumps. A Marilyn Minter video of stiletto-clad feet stomping in pools of silvery paint was projected overhead and struck just the right, fabulous note for a benefit that raised upward of $1.7 million. Dean’s touch on the decks may not be the lightest but he can certainly move a crowd. He made it all seem easy—a trait the BMA itself must surely covet.