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

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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

in 2012

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

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