Event planner J. Ben Bourgeois creates wow moments
“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?”
A native of Atlanta, Bourgeois got his professional start in a family banking business that was “boring but an awesome financial background,” he says. Another family enterprise, which provided floral décor for the city’s debutante balls and other social occasions, was much more fun. “But I wanted to do more than the design,” he says. “I wanted to do entertainment and staging and create and build. I wanted to produce, so I decided to jump ship, and it was either New York or Los Angeles.”
“I couldn’t imagine going to New York poor and without an old-school pedigree,” he says. “In L.A., you can do your thing.” The climate also beckoned, along with “all the money spent on movies and special effects. Being here, you can sort of tap into that without spending a million dollars on R and D.”
In the late ‘80s, not long after he had established himself in Southern California, he had lunch with a friend at Warner Bros. who put him in touch with the studio’s event producers. Soon he was hard at work on film premiers and the “Celebration of Tradition,” a star-studded rededication of the studio staged in 1990.
“I was so young and green, I had no idea what I had,” Bourgeois says. But after five years at Warner, he formed his own business in Burbank. On Larchmont, where he bought a two-story building eight years ago, he works with a core group of eight people and many more when big projects get rolling.
These days, he does about 70% of his work out of town. A recent trip took him back to the Louvre to do a “light check” for an event in November that he can’t discuss. “I had to see how the lights worked and if we had to install dimmers,” he says. “Wandering the corridors of the Louvre at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night gave me goose bumps. It’s those kinds of experiences that make my job the best.”