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Special Events

French Twist

THE CHALLENGE? Keeping a 22-year-old fund-raiser fresh while pleasing a sophisticated clientele-all without breaking the bank. The solution? Using a little savoir-faire.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, has relied on a "Monte Carlo" fund-raising benefit-complete with casino-style gambling-every year since 1976. The formula has proved a winner, netting a total of $2.75 million since its inception. The theme for the most recent event-"A Celestial Night in Monte Carlo"-came from honorary chairwoman Audrey Geisel, widow of "Dr. Seuss" writer Ted Geisel. To carry it out, Newport Beach, Calif.-based Masterpiece Productions turned to contemporary French design to create a sleek, sophisticated nightclub with a heavenly ambience.

The evening unfolded in three stages. First, some 400 guests gathered for an hour of cocktails and hors d'oeuvre in one of the museum's courts. They then moved outdoors to the parking lot, which had been transformed into an elegant dining area complete with ocean view. After dinner, another 300 guests arrived for gambling and dancing staged back inside the museum.

Masterpiece achieved its celestial look with a color scheme of blues, white and yellow. The dining chairs were covered in white pin-dot fabric, which contrasted against the ice-blue and cobalt-blue bengaline tablecloths; the supplier was Resource One of Reseda, Calif. On the tables, the settings alternated between cobalt-blue charger plates and chargers with frosted silver beading. Reminding the guests that their generosity was funding art, the sculpture "Hammering Man" by Jonathan Borofsky towered above diners.

The stately floral arrangements, created by Anthony Griffin & Associates of Costa Mesa, Calif., displayed white and yellow flowers in full bloom, "in the French style," explains Masterpiece Productions partner Steve Norton. Other floral arrangements included clear vases packed tight with whole lemons and topped with floral sprays.

In keeping with the museum setting, the dessert buffet bars themselves were works of art. The bars were built to be slightly higher than the standard buffet and sculpted in sinuous lines. They were then upholstered in spandex fabric and cross-lighted in changing colors. Cobalt-blue votive candleholders served as risers for clear glass plates holding sugar-rimmed martini glasses filled with lavender mousse.

The menu from caterer Hyatt Regency La Jolla offered yellow gazpacho with crabmeat, herbed rack of lamb with tomato bordelaise, and a salad of Belgian endive, baby frisee and a mixture of shiitake, white cap, oyster, morel and wild mushrooms. San Diego-based Waters Catering created the dessert-gold-dusted chocolate truffles-along with the dessert buffet offered later in the evening. Also available were stations featuring crepes and infused sorbets.

The lighting-designed by Images By Lighting of Culver City, Calif.-created a starry night indoors and out. It sent gobos of shooting stars spinning across the walls behind the dessert buffets and onto outdoor screens partitioning off the dining area. Cloud gobos were projected behind the crepes table as well as behind the French chanteuse.

The evening's entertainment actually started as soon as the guests arrived. Stilt-walkers dressed in fanciful costumes greeted each arrival.

"Guests kept going back to look at them," Norton notes.

Masterpiece worked with entertainment firm Karla Ross Productions, Santa Monica, Calif., to line up the entertainment, which included a swing band at dinner and disco music in the "casino."

The event was again a success, notes museum development director Anne Farrell, netting more than $170,000 for MCA. She praises the deft work of Masterpiece Productions. "We had an art exhibit opening one week after our event, so we needed to have a crew get in right away to hang art," she says. "Masterpiece was out by 9 a.m. the next day."

She also praises the sensitivity of the company in creating an event to suit the museum. "We are a contemporary art museum," she explains. "We have pretty good taste to start with, so 'party as usual' is not what we're about."

Farrell notes that fund-raising events for cultural institutions pose an interesting paradox. Despite the fact that the museum's benefactors are often financial powerhouses, they don't want to see money spent extravagantly. "Our patrons want to know their money is going to the right place-to the museum," Farrell says. As a consequence, "our special event production companies need to keep economy in mind."

Farrell is a believer in the power of special events to strengthen cultural institutions. "Any institution lives and dies by its profile in the community, and that includes its social profile," she says. "Special events have an important role to play in any nonprofit organization. They can showcase what is unique about it."

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