Bet­tina Pren­tice, The Main Event

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Pren­tice dis­cusses her ap­proach to event plan­ning as she con­tin­ues to evolves her busi­ness, Pren­tice Cul­tural Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

BY KRIS­TEN TAUER PHO­TO­GRAPH BY WE­STON WELLS

For those not al­ready privy to her de­ci­sion, the an­nounce­ment that Bet­tina Pren­tice was mov­ing her com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm away from event pro­duc­tion — de­liv­ered dur­ing the Mu­seum of Art and De­sign’s Glit­ter Grunge Disco for its young pa­trons in April — was met with quiet shock.

But sit­ting in the flow­er­ing Gramercy Park on a re­cent morn­ing, it be­comes clear that the de­ci­sion was made after a good deal of in­tro­spec­tion and dis­cus­sion with her in­ner cir­cle.

“The in­spi­ra­tion was Made­line Wein­rib,” says Pren­tice, re­fer­ring to the tex­tile artist, a close friend who de­cided to close her busi­ness this spring after 20 years.

“It was over many cups of cof­fee with Made­line that I started to re­al­ize I could also make my own de­ci­sions about how to move for­ward, and the events — as much as I love them — are an all-con­sum­ing part of what I was do­ing. Also, more and more lux­ury brands were reach­ing out to me about col­lab­o­ra­tions and con­sult­ing and I found my­self en­joy­ing the cul­tural con­sul­tant work more.”

The foun­da­tion of Pren­tice Cul­tural Com­mu­ni­ca­tions harkens back to col­lab­o­ra­tion. While Pren­tice is of­ten high­lighted for her sar­to­rial sen­si­bil­ity — the el­e­gant park is a fit­ting habi­tat for the red­head, both in her pen­chant for flowy, flow­ered dresses and thought­ful, af­fa­ble de­meanor — be­hind the scenes she has cul­ti­vated a unique ap­proach to sto­ry­telling. Com­pany clients have in­cluded the Art Pro­duc­tion Fund, the New Mu­seum, Brook­lyn Mu­seum, the Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign, Google, Tif­fany & Co, and Bul­gari, among oth­ers.

“Most peo­ple as­so­ciate me with PR, but I’m also plan­ning the event, do­ing the pro­duc­tion, writ­ing the guest list, sell­ing tables and se­cur­ing spon­sors. We were re­ally act­ing like a SWAT team for these in­sti­tu­tions and non­prof­its, and mak­ing strate­gic in­tro­duc­tions for board mem­bers and ma­jor donors,” says Pren­tice. “There was no real scope of work, it was just how can we help them reach their goals.”

A New York City na­tive, Pren­tice headed to D.C. to study the­ol­ogy at George­town; once there, she quickly piv­oted to fo­cus on art. After grad­u­a­tion, she be­gan her ca­reer at the front desk of Sotheby’s; after six months, To­bias Meyer, formerly the head of the auc­tion house’s con­tem­po­rary art de­part­ment, en­cour­aged the com­pany to move her to a spe­cial­ist de­part­ment. She left to start her own art com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany in 2008, Pren­tice Cul­tural Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, where she has re­paid the sup­port of her men­tors by nur­tur­ing the ca­reers of her young em­ploy­ees. She also be­came a mother along the way, work­ing through­out the preg­nan­cies of both her young chil­dren.

MAD trustee Mike De Paolo has been one of her ar­dent sup­port­ers; to­gether, the pair re­vived the mu­seum’s young pa­trons ball.

“He’s the one who brought me on­board to MAD, al­lowed me so much cre­ativ­ity, and sup­ported me no mat­ter how wild the idea,” she says. For the first event, the duo planned an evening rooted in time-travel, the medium of artist hon­orees Peter McGough and David Mc­Der­mott.

“We hosted it at a Beaux Arts man­sion on the Up­per East Side, and weren’t al­lowed any spon­sors be­cause it wouldn’t be pe­riod. We re­designed the mu­seum’s logo to be Art Deco, and in lieu of the step and re­peat did an ice sculp­ture of their logo — be­cause in 1928 it was the height of deca­dence to have ice at all, let alone to do some­thing like an ice sculp­ture with it,” ex­plains Pren­tice of the con­cept, which was thor­oughly re­searched. The com­pany dived into the ar­chives at the New York Pub­lic Li­brary, and pineap­ple up­side-down cake, which was all the rage at the time, even made it onto the menu. It’s the at­ten­tion to de­tail and de­sign that has made Pren­tice so in-de­mand.

“Those things could al­ways go kitschy in a Ti­tanic way. Ev­ery­thing down to what was on the ta­ble, sil­ver­ware, flow­ers, the venue, it was lit­er­ally out of the 1920s. And that set the bar for all the projects we did after that,” says De Paolo. “She had this gi­ant ice sculp­ture cre­ated at the en­trance to the venue with MAD carved in ice, in the font that MAD uses. Who does that? So I knew then that I was dealing with some­one who knew how to get things done. It wasn’t un­til maybe the third Young Pa­trons ball that I said to my­self, ‘The artist here is Bet­tina.’ She’s cre­at­ing these lit­tle life dio­ra­mas; she’s bring­ing them to life and then it kind of just goes away when the night is over. It’s per­for­mance art at its best.”

Pren­tice points to watch­ing black-and-white films while grow­ing up as a root of her cine­matic ap­proach to event plan­ning.

“You want to cre­ate an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. I want that sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. There’s al­ways an en­trance mo­ment — there has to be that tun­nel — there’s an out­side and an in­side,” she says. “So we usu­ally park cars out­side our events to set the tone.”

For MAD’s event this spring, that was a car coated in glit­ter parked out­side the West Vil­lage venue; for the time-travel event, it was a 1929 Ford Phaeton. She recre­ated fa­mous night­club The Stork Club for a pri­vate client’s 40th birth­day; she had hench­men sta­tioned out­side in 1940s dou­ble-breasted over­coats with dober­mans. (A nod to the club’s ru­mored ties to the mob.)

“Bet­tina is much more than an event pro­ducer; I think of her as the di­rec­tor or ar­chi­tect of this im­pact­ful mise en scene,” says Cleo Wade, a close friend and fre­quent attendee. “The best thing about go­ing to one of her par­ties is that they don’t feel like events at all. You feel as though you have been in­vited to be a part of some­thing. She draws you to the cause, the artist, or in­sti­tu­tion in such a mag­i­cal way.”

Wade was tapped by Pren­tice to host a ben­e­fit for the Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­ter, New Or­leans in 2016, which she planned pro bono for the arts or­ga­ni­za­tion. Pren­tice notes the event, which was held at famed jazz club Min­ton’s in Har­lem and fea­tured mu­sic cu­rated by Solange Knowles, as a mo­ment of pride — “be­ing able to cre­ate some­thing out of noth­ing,” as she de­scribes. “It cost the mu­seum ba­si­cally no money; ev­ery­thing was call­ing in fa­vors.”

“I learned early on from our con­ver­sa­tions that she was in­vested in telling sto­ries about art and artists that don’t usu­ally get told. And that her drive came very specif­i­cally from her per­sonal sen­si­bil­i­ties about jus­tice, com­mu­nity and what is pos­si­ble when peo­ple are brought to­gether with a mis­sion and cause,” says CAC visual arts cu­ra­tor An­drea An­der­s­son.

While many events are held at the usual sus­pects — Cipri­ani, Ham­mer­stein Ball­room, Spring Place — Pren­tice of­ten goes in search of spa­ces not built for events; New Mu­seum’s Nex­tGen ben­e­fit has taken place at both Bath­house Stu­dio and the 100 Bar­clay Street pen­t­house. Even though Pren­tice is mov­ing away from full-scale event pro­duc­tion, she’ll con­tinue to work with or­ga­ni­za­tions on con­cept and help­ing link them with pro­duc­ers as she moves her fo­cus to cul­tural con­sult­ing work and con­nect­ing artists and brands.

“Col­lab­o­ra­tion is key to ev­ery­thing I’m do­ing in the fu­ture,” she says. “There are right and wrong ways to do a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween and artist and brand. I started my orig­i­nal art com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency be­cause I wanted to help artists com­mu­ni­cate more ef­fec­tively.

“Part of what I do in a col­lab­o­ra­tion is I’m al­ways look­ing out for the artist as well as the brand. You want to make sure that an artist is ex­pand­ing their process, and then it’s a win-win for ev­ery­one rather than do­ing a key­chain or some­thing and they lose cred­i­bil­ity, and their mar­ket suf­fers. It’s all about do­ing some­thing that feels or­ganic and rel­e­vant. Rel­e­vant is a word that comes up in the of­fice a lot: I think there’s so much op­por­tu­nity right now for brands to take these in­cred­i­ble bud­gets they have and be con­tem­po­rary pa­trons of the arts. There’s a way to make great art pos­si­ble with these bud­gets that al­ready ex­ist.”

She points to the artist col­lab­o­ra­tions she helped fa­cil­i­tate for Tif­fany & Co. for the Whit­ney Bi­en­nial.

“One of the artists — this is the proud­est mo­ment of my life maybe, other than my chil­dren — is Harold Men­dez did a Colom­bian death mask that went into the win­dow at Tif­fany’s. That was not a key­chain, it was an in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful work. And he was so proud. It re­mains for me the gold standard,” she says.

“We don’t par­tic­i­pate in RFPs, we’ve never had to do busi­ness get­ting — brands tended to seek us out I think when they’re look­ing for that au­then­tic­ity. We can still guar­an­tee ROI, it just doesn’t have to al­ways be this for­mula,” she says.

Cur­rently, she’s work­ing with the Penin­sula Ho­tel to help it de­velop a global pro­gram rooted in ex­pe­ri­en­tial art. That project, which she is cocu­rat­ing with art scholar Isolde Briel­maier, will kick off in Hong Kong.

“There’s a lot to be grate­ful for and look back on proudly. It’s been a very ex­cit­ing, happy 10 years,” she says. “Since I made this de­ci­sion, I’ve felt so awe­some that I can steer my own des­tiny.”

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