KATHERINE NICHOLS / KNICHOLS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Paul Loo and Sharon Twigg-Smith in front of Jun Kaneko's "Untitled Head," a glazed ceramic, valued at $88,000.
ConTempo masterpiece raises $1 million
SATURDAY NIGHT'S soirée to benefit the Contemporary Museum could have been yet another gathering of Honolulu glitterati come to see and be seen, sit down to a mediocre dinner and perhaps listen to a string of obligatory speeches. But this was ConTempo, where platters of smoked duck, lavender and goat cheese crostini, an endless flow of champagne and a passion for art sufficiently oiled the wallets of 500 attendees to raise more than $1 million for the museum and its educational programs.
The affair is widely regarded as the "party of the year" because the collection of avant-garde art displayed throughout Neiman Marcus is "stimulating and dynamic," said collector and event volunteer Dawn MacNaughton. "People want to come and see what's here and ask, 'Who would want to own that?'"
Partygoers might never know, as the high-end bidding is done largely behind the scenes, not on sign-up sheets taped to the wall.
The notion that serious knowledge of art is required for admission -- or enjoyment --rings true when some bids start at $30,000 (or more). But those with budgets limited to a few hundred dollars could still partake. ConTempo's team of volunteers educate people who want to learn, and even help procure works of art that might be of interest.
"It's an incredible opportunity for anyone," said MacNaughton, "and we'll do it on any scale."
You don't have to purchase a sculpture that costs more than your car, but those who attend must believe that beauty is open to interpretation. And plan to be part of the show.
EACH YEAR, ConTempo obtains works from about 30 top artists in Hawaii and on the mainland -- such as photographer Richard Misrach. The artist receives 50 percent of the piece's retail value; the museum keeps the rest.
The "joint venture" is lucrative for all parties, said Sharon Twigg-Smith, a collector who has spearheaded the event for many years. "Once we made (the artists) partners, we started getting bigger exhibits." The highest retail value in this year's show was $88,000.
"Art is what makes better scientists, better teachers, better people," added Twigg-Smith. And with the range of prices, "everybody feels like they can participate."
It's vital for museums to host benefits like these because they can't survive on admission fees and donations alone, according to Lori Thomas, chairwoman of last year's Honolulu Academy of Arts' Kamaaina Christmas. And it's essential that the few museums in Honolulu endure. "Art is what enriches our lives and gives meaning to our leisure," said Thomas.
"It's difficult stuff to appreciate sometimes," admitted attorney John Knorek as he eyed a Peter Woytuk birdbath with a starting bid of $3,000. But he believes it's important to "keep works of art from living artists on display."
Melissa Benjamin, incoming Honolulu Academy of Arts guild president, noted that museums play an especially critical role now that art education has been cut from most school budgets, and Hawaii's geographic isolation prevents many children from traveling to museums elsewhere.
Fortunately, nobody has to go too far to see a museum that "people around the world know about," said former Makiki resident Martin Rabbett.
Actor and artist Richard Chamberlain agreed. "Having the focal point of contemporary art right in the middle of Honolulu is an amazing treasure because people are so seldom exposed to that quality of artistic endeavor."
Mona Abadir, chairwoman of the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts for the past five years, said that art influences every aspect of her daily existence. "For me it matters because it's a way to approach life ... with an open mind. It gives you a new way of looking at things. ... It's about stimulating creativity. You can like, love it, hate it ... doesn't matter. But the idea is to get you thinking."
AS PATRONS sat down in the Mariposa restaurant and surrounding areas to beef tenderloin and foie gras prepared by Neiman Marcus executive chef Douglas Lum, it was clear the tuxedos, designer gowns and striking jewelry took a back seat to the evening's purpose -- for the most part. One woman wore a silver necklace adorned with a Parisian designer's thumbprints, another a vintage bomber jacket reversed and transformed into exclusive attire.
"People dress a lot more outside the box for this event," said former Miss Hawaii Candes Meijide Gentry, sporting a tango-inspired hat from Buenos Aires and her own design of dangling light-black South Sea pearls. "Everyone's kind of like a walking piece of artwork. Be your own canvas!"