Behind the shimmer of the Hammer’s Gala in the Garden on Saturday, a dedication to activism reminded guests what’s keeping the pulse of the museum pumping.
Three new exhibitions celebrated the Hammer’s first gala since 2019: “Picasso Cut Papers,” “Joan Didion: What She Means” and “Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine.” The latter two particularly honed in on what Hammer Director Ann Philbin said are core values: “Embedded in the DNA of the Hammer are the twin engines of art and activism,” she said.
The night featured unlikely unions between artists across mediums — Will Ferrell embraced Mark Bradford in the middle of the Thompson exhibit, and Hilton Als and Steven Spielberg walked side by side down the steps into the Hammer’s courtyard for dinner later in the evening.
The gala, which raised $2.2 million, honored Charles Gaines, the renowned artist and CalArts educator, and Chase Strangio, a transgender rights litigator and deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.
Also on the guest list: Laverne Cox, Colman Domingo, Andrea Bowers and Annabeth Gish.. At the top of the evening, music hummed over the chatter of artists and art lovers outside. Inside the Thompson exhibit, curated by Erin Christovale with Vanessa Arizmendi, the music lifted the already vibrant colors of the work.
Thompson, who died at 28, had a brief, prolific career that examined themes of justice and bearing witness. “I like to think about different ways that we can disrupt the violent systems of power and connect with people who care about telling artistic and creative stories,” Strangio said during the cocktail party.
For the record:
2:13 p.m. Oct. 11, 2022A previous version of this story stated that artist Bob Thompson died at age 29. He was 28.
In the Didion exhibit, curated by Als in collaboration with Connie Butler and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, Domingo and his husband, Raúl, were smiling over a passage from Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” on the wall.
“This one stopped me because this is one of my favorite quotes,” Domingo said.
He recalled his own emotions moving from a “diehard New Yorker” to a new Angeleno.
“All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more,” he recited from the passage.
“And that’s why I left New York,” Domingo said. “I felt like it is for people who are striving and younger, seeking and searching. And I went there to do all that. It was time for me to have a different life.”
Martin Creed arrived in a suit made by “adapting clothes.” Pieces of the jacket protruded past a typical frame with stitched fabric spikes on his shoulders and the ends of darts poking out of the lapel.
“If you feel like a fool, you should dress like a fool,” he said.
To top off the look, he wore a white hat with a box frame and lips that curved upward. Creed has his own solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth called “HATS!” opening this month.
After guests made their way to their tables for dinner, Philbin opened with a personal note that foreshadowed the night’s honorees: While she attended the University of New Hampshire in the early 1970s, Philbin said, the state government wanted her and her peers expelled for starting a gay student organization on campus. They won the right to assemble and organize at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, but Philbin noted that just last week, another university was attempting to ban LGBTQ groups on campus.
“The fight is long from done,” she said. “But we are very fortunate to have warriors like Chase [Strangio] and the ACLU on the frontlines.”
Cox took the stage to introduce Strangio as the first honoree of the night, praising his “unconditional love for trans and queer people.”
“This has been an unprecedented year for any trans legislation at the state level,” Cox said. “Over 250 pieces of anti-trans legislation were introduced this year alone, and far too many bills signed into law, and Chase, the ACLU and others are challenging in our very conservative court.”
Strangio cited his favorite poets as he spoke onstage, laughing at how his love for poetry is so antithetical to his career as a litigator. He concluded with a poem from W.H. Auden on Sept. 1, 1939: “There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die.”
“We must love one another if we demand better for ourselves or our communities and for our world,” Strangio said.
Bradford took the stage to share his time as one of Gaines’ students. “He appointed me, but he never told me,” he said. “He instructed me, but he never said you have to walk down that road.”
Bradford joked that Gaines always carried a bag, whether it was his briefcase, overnight bag or tennis bag. Tonight was no exception.
While Gaines spent much time in the classroom, uplifting diverse voices in art, he said he saw teaching as part of his studio. “The classroom and studio for me were dependent upon each other as they were involved in the same enterprise, to push the limits of thoughts and feelings, and this was important too if you’re to make art that can be responsive to culture and its development,” Gaines said.
The band Gabriels closed the night with an entrancing performance that brought people to their feet. Lead singer Jacob Lusk grooved and bounced to the rhythm in a multicolored robe and with a golden microphone in hand.
At the end of the night, Roxanne Gaines shuffled back to the table to pick up her husband’s bag, this time an over-the-shoulder black satchel. She was awestruck, remembering how she once sat farther back in the gala and was now at the head table, right across from Spielberg.
“Nobody deserves it more than Charles [Gaines] and he has so long gone unrecognized,” Bowers said. “He was in his early 50s before he had a career, and he educated and changed the lives of so many of us, so to see him honored makes me think the world’s going to be OK.”
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