On a recent Monday evening in Tribeca, an eclectic assortment of partygoers gathered outside the New York Academy of Art, queuing around the block as young women in pinafores and cartoonish platform heels doled out cotton candy. Inside, stilt walkers and acrobats flanked the entryway, part of the elaborate scenery decking out the 22nd annual Tribeca Ball. A blowout fundraiser for the NYAA, this year’s gala honored artist Will Cotton — thus all the cotton candy and characters seemingly straight out of one of Cotton’s own works.
But for all the sugary-sweet details, the patrons of the arts who attended demonstrated an admirable adherence to the night’s theme — “A Magical Menagerie” — in their finest animal prints. Feather collars and leopard prints abounded; one woman pranced up the steps in a swallow-print wrap dress, another in a mouse-embroidered shift. (“Thumbelina,” a man murmured appreciatively as she swept past.)
Actress Naomi Watts, one of four co-chairs of the event, wasn’t quite sure how best to costume herself according to theme: “I don’t really do animal dressing,” she mused, pausing outside a second-floor gallery where she and a friend — her date for the night — were taking in some recent student works. “I thought, ‘How am I going to pull this off?’” (She managed, it seemed, with a periwinkle silk Stella McCartney dress adorned with delicate silver embroidery.) Watts joined the board just under a year ago, cultivating a friendship with artist and honoree Will Cotton over that time — in addition to obtaining one of his drawings. “It’s not an original,” she confessed, “but it’s a good thing. It’s beautiful.”
Cotton, clad in a candy-pink suit and his trademark glasses, was leading studio tours around the upper three floors of the NYAA. An alumnus and lecturer at the art school, Cotton took his first class there in 1987; he started teaching in the early ’00s and now offers a semesterly master class in drawing and painting from models.
“This is my place,” he said appreciatively, pausing in front of the bar on the third floor. Surrounded by this elaborate menagerie in both art — most of the student work focused on animal representations — and real life — local animal sanctuaries loaned birds who perched in elaborate nests on the fifth floor, to be drawn by artists patiently observing nearby — which animal did Cotton most identify with? “I’m going to say a unicorn,” he said, laughing. “They’re just nothing but happiness. I like that.”
Artist Tali Lennox already had ample time to consider her spirit animal, having just undertaken her first “shamanic drumming spirit animal vision quest” the previous week.
“You don’t drink anything or taken anything, and you close your eyes and you have visions,” Lennox explained, describing the quest. “You don’t necessarily have one animal, but different animals will come to you.” Lennox’s main animal-guide? A bear. “At the time, the bear felt right,” she said. It was comforting. Still, “I don’t know if I’m a bear,” she added. A steel pan played in the background; in addition to the myriad animals populating the Academy, various instruments, including a theremin, a tiny handheld xylophone, and steel drums, soundtracked the night. Actor Alan Cumming particularly delighted in the theremin — “I love that,” he said, imitating its extraterrestrial wail: “Woo-ooo-oo,” he sang. (Alan Cumming will also have you know he is his own spirit animal.) Accompanied by his artist husband Grant Shaffer, Cumming emerged from the studio of student artist Eleni Giannopoulou; he had also admired Maya Mason’s oversized canvas depicting “all these naked women running at you.”
After more than two hours of mingling, cocktails, and art appreciation, dinner finally drew near, and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart was eager to take her seat. She had just returned from a safari in Botswana with her two grandchildren; the Tribeca Ball’s menagerie didn’t quite hold up to the African wildlife — “They were much more plentiful,” she said, laughing, “but just as beautiful.” It was her third safari — previous expeditions brought her to South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania — and “I wanted to take my grandchildren to see the wild before it disappears.” Stewart’s inner animal? “Definitely a leopard,” she said unhesitatingly. She had seen two on her Botswanan safari.
A man playing a buoyant melody on a handheld xylophone led a short parade of partygoers down the corridor past us. “Oh, is that dinner?” Stewart asked. “Dinner bell, okay!” And with that, she swept down the stairs to take her seat alongside Will Cotton. For the cover of Stewart’s magazine’s 25th anniversary, Cotton had painted Stewart “all crusted with sugah,” she said. Then, seeming to enjoy the sound, she repeated it: “With sugah!”
Sugar certainly abounded at dinner, where NYAA president David Kratz introduced Cotton — “Dr. Cotton,” Kratz said (Cotton received an honorary doctorate from the Academy in 2012), “or, as I like to call him, Dr. Cotton Candy.” Co-chairs Naomi Watts, Brooke Shields, Christina Di Donna, and Alain Bernard all donned hats and crowns adorned with cupcakes and frosting in celebration of their honoree; across the street at the bar Tutto il Giorno, where the afterparty kicked off as soon as dinner was finished, cannoli and tiny raspberry tarts occupied coffee tables while guests nestled in snug booths. But for some jungle animals, time for hibernation had already come — fed and watered and art-filled, they filed out the door into the cool early April air.
Go inside the 2016 Tribeca Ball, "Far Horizons":