THE ART OF SUCCESS Julia Peyton-Jones recalls how she made the Serpentine Summer Party the world’s most glamorous night out
Julia Peyton-Jones reveals how the Serpentine Summer Party has become a global epicentre of power, fame and glamour
When I became director of the Serpentine Gallery in 1991, there was no one more famous in the world than the Princess of Wales. So it was something of an anomaly when this international icon became patron of her ‘local’ gallery’s renovation appeal. The aim was to secure £4.2 million – a fortune at the time – to transform the run-down former tea-room, which presented the work of some of the most important artists of the time, into a state-of-the-art building for exhibitions. When Princess Diana agreed to take on this role, on the understanding that she would visit the gallery two or three times a year, no one could possibly have envisaged that one such occasion would be the Serpentine’s fundraising gala dinner in June 1994, on the night her estranged husband admitted to his infidelity on British television. She crossed Kensington Gardens from her home in Kensington Palace and emerged from her car, arm outstretched, wearing what became known as the ‘revenge dress’, like Boudicca leading her troops into battle. The significant number of press, ranked on their ladders around the Serpentine’s entrance to capture the moment, was in itself unusual for a small, not-for-profit art gallery in a London park. Inside, the guests had no idea that they were part of history in the making and that this image of the Princess’ arrival at the gala would become one of the most famous media photographs of all time.
It is almost impossible to imagine, in these days of high visibility and popularity for contemporary art, that at the beginning of the 1990s, when the artists who became known as the YBAs (Young British Artists) were already cutting a swathe through the international art world, it was considered acceptable to use the genre as a punch-bag. I stopped counting the times journalists would question whether the Serpentine was showing art or whether what we were displaying could have been done by a child of three. The Princess of Wales’ association with the gallery quickly put a stop to this – it was no longer possible to articulate such sceptical views without looking foolish and ignorant.
Our galas offered an unparalleled opportunity to present the gallery’s work to people who might not have heard of the Serpentine and enlist their support for our programmes. So we curated exhibitions, conceived for the night of the gala only, that presented a stellar range of artists whose work we had shown over the previous 20 years. It put art at the very heart of the evening. And the strategy worked: we reached our fund-raising target and, above all, built a network of supporters outside the art world who continued to be involved as the Serpentine grew.
In 2000, we planned to pull out all the stops to celebrate the Gallery’s 30th birthday, and decided to use this anniversary to communicate what the Serpentine stood for, as well as our vision for the future. We commissioned the architect Zaha Hadid – whose work
was not well known at the time – to design a structure to house the gala as well as to create the interior design and furniture. It was an extraordinary night, with an auction that included Damien Hirst’s specially produced Spot Mini, and jewels that our trustee, Michael Bloomberg, bought not once but twice, to double the Serpentine’s income. The evening started with an exhibition of the creations of the seminal conceptual artist, Felix GonzalezTorres, whose use of everyday objects once again raised the familiar question: what is art?
It was the last gala the Serpentine was to hold, because while I was of the firm belief that if the gallery was going to pick pockets, then it was our responsibility to do so in the most fun and life-enhancing way, focus on this single event had become disproportionate to the rest of our work. We still needed to raise the Serpentine’s profile and generate income, and we wanted to retain the gala’s popularity as the only place to be in London for that one night in the summer. But we needed something more organisationally manageable. And so the concept of ‘The Summer Party’ (TSP) was born. The globally unique Pavilion commission launched by Hadid continued year on year and, together with the ambitious summer shows, was the beating heart of the evening, reminding people why they had bought a ticket to an incredible event in one of the most beautiful parks in the world.
‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’,
Noël Coward famously sang, and one could adapt this comment on British eccentricity to ‘go out on a summer night in London’, which can be cold and wet enough to require a clever combination of party frock, cashmere and thermals. However, since 2001, TSP has been hosted under exactly these conditions and tickets are at a premium, with people queuing to come. The new format, allowing for up to 1,000 guests, made it possible to invite not only artists, architects and designers, but also people from fashion, music, theatre, film and literature, as well as leading restaurateurs, together with politicians, entrepreneurs, the tech industry, business – all those who embody the creative spirit that is at the core of London’s DNA. Hence, the party is, in its own way, a showcase for what makes our country so perverse, distinctive, individualistic, inventive and exciting.
Concerns followed an annual ritual: would people still want to come? How would we control the numbers, and balance the well-known guests with those who paid for tickets? Would we meet our income target? Could we keep the costs down? Would we get the band we wanted? Could we afford the band we wanted? Most importantly of all, how could we throw the best party ever? And then, of course, there was the rain plan, which was completely useless since the number of guests far exceeded the available space under cover. The issue of whether the Pavilion roof would leak was always an anxiety: on one occasion, Paris Hilton was forced to do her energetic thing while navigating the puddles on the dancefloor as a storm raged outside.
Over the years, the Gallery’s lawn has seen some of the key figures of our time drinking, dancing, gossiping and playing together. To look back on the guest list is to chart the changing mood of our era: celebrity couples such as Jude Law and Sienna Miller at the beginning of their love affair, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, David Bowie and Iman; leading actors including Dustin Hoffman, Bradley Cooper, Orlando Bloom, Thandie Newton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rosamund Pike, Steve Martin, Kate Hudson, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Eddie Redmayne. In 2014, we listened to Pharrell Williams performing at the height of his popularity (though Lily Allen, Ellie Goulding, Noel Gallagher, Katy Perry, Shirley Bassey, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood and Tom Jones have all preferred to come as guests rather than to sing). The fashion crowd have added sparkle – Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Cara Delevingne, Alexa Chung, Erdem Moralioglu, Roksanda Ilincic, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Riccardo Tisci and Clare Waight Keller, while the co-hosts of the party have included Yves Saint Laurent, Roberto Cavalli, L’Wren Scott, Leon Max, Christopher Kane and Tommy Hilfiger.
There have been so many unforgettable moments: Pharrell Williams’ shout-out, in the middle of his set, for everyone there to support the Serpentine; the unity of the Jagger family across marriages and generations, in the year L’Wren Scott was a co-host; and the gold-plated A-list stars who thanked us for inviting them when we would happily have gone down on our knees to beg them to come.
At the centre of the whole evening were the artists and architects of the Pavilion and the exhibition in the galleries – the impetus for hosting the party, which is to fund not only these projects but all the others in our programmes. The tiny footprint of Serpentine lawn has played host to the titans of our time against the backdrop of work by some of the leading artistic and architectural practitioners. And this cultural alchemy that is so exciting to be part of is what makes this very simple garden party absolutely unique.
This year’s Serpentine Summer Party (www.serpentinegalleries.org) will take place on 28 June.
The Serpentine Summer Party
Guests at the Serpentine, from top: Princess Diana in her ‘revenge dress’ in 1994. Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia Peyton-Jones; Azealia Banks and Cara Delevingne; and Erin O’Connor,
all in 2012