New York Times Asks “What Price Generosity?” | Conservancies and “Social” Capital

Recent Conservatory Ball New York Botanical Garden

Interesting article in Friday’s New York Times, “What Price Generosity?,” and good timing with the approval Thursday night by Community Board 2 of a private Conservancy at Washington Square Park.

A lot of questions and concerns have been raised about a Conservancy at Washington Square since its existence was first revealed a few months back after being negotiated in private behind closed doors with Parks Department officials a year or more ago.

With the approval by the Community Board — which did not seem to take voiced concerns seriously and rushed the process of approval — new (and old) questions are being raised. (More on that and full report-back from the C.B. 2 meeting still to come.)

The four founding members of the Conservancy — who say they are solely interested in “flower planting” and “arranging trash pick-ups” — also arranged with the Parks Department (in secret) to share the new Washington Square Park Administrator, Sarah Neilson, a Parks Department employee. She serves as their “executive director.”

Why this sharing of this employee is necessary remains unclear. They say: “the city runs the park.” But how does this work exactly? In this case, their (non-paid?) employee is also “the city.”

This set up — where the park administrator is also the conservancy director — mirrors the set-up of many of the full-blown Conservancies in New York City (including Madison Square Park, Prospect Park, Central Park). And conservancy board members use these positions as a form of “social capital.”

Already, the Washington Square Park Conservancy board members are hosting caviar and champagne parties in the Village to “introduce” themselves (not for everyone, by invitation only in a swank setting with a grand piano).

And, as Robert Lederman points out below, these arrangements don’t hurt their real estate values either:

This [New York Times] article give an good idea of the motivations behind a lot of the seeming generosity of NYC’s wealthiest people. These wanna be aristocrats see public parks as their private backyards. This tiny minority are the real constituents for the Mayor sterilizing the streets and parks. They are the board members of the park conservancies, the same people directly behind eliminating artists. “Artists, performers, homeless people, protestors…? What are those lowlifes doing in my backyard?!?” Aside from the ego boost of being known as a benefactor, their real estate holding dramatically increase in value with the creation of every new park conservancy and BID(business improvement district). Every cent they contribute comes back to them as profit.

From the New York Times:
June 21, 2013

What Price Generosity?


Just the muted click of cameras announced their arrival the other night at the Conservatory Ball, the annual spring fund-raising party of the New York Botanical Garden. Alighting on a swatch of crimson runner and posing gamely for photographers were the Fendi heiress Fé Fendi, swathed in a Carolina

Herrera floral chiffon; the philanthropist Somers Farkas in a pewter Maggie Norris evening slip; and the social stalwart Mai Hallingby Harrison, sheathed in vintage Halston.

Theirs was a stately parade, but it picked up steam when Jean Shafiroff stepped onto the carpet in a froth of baby pink designed by Zang Toi, a favorite of the gilded set. For what seemed like 10 minutes, Ms. Shafiroff fanned out her skirt for photographers and twirled like a music box ballerina, all but hijacking this otherwise decorous affair. Hers was the sort of unabashed swanning that’s become almost reflexive on the charity circuit as guests, old-guard and new, turn the prominent benefits that dot the city’s social calendar into the East Coast equivalent of a Hollywood gala, with much of that activity chronicled by a few tireless society photographers whose pictures end up in New York Magazine, WWD, The New York Times and a seemingly inexhaustible number of party-tracking Web sites.

“Increasingly there is the feeling,” said Peter Davis, the editor of Scene, a society magazine, “that if Patrick McMullan or Billy Farrell doesn’t take your picture, you weren’t at the party. And if you weren’t at the party, you don’t exist in New York.”

Glittery affairs like the fall and spring parties for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Winter Wonderland Ball for the Botanical Garden, the New Yorkers for Children benefit in September and opening-night parties in the spring and fall for the American Ballet Theater give donors “an excuse to wear those new cuff links and display that new gown,” wrote Reynold Levy in “Yours for the Asking,” his 2009 guide to fund-raising.

“To see and be seen doing some good,” wrote Mr. Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center, “is a form of public recognition most people cherish.”

But that visibility comes at a cost, not just in the hours spent wrangling invitations and planning one’s entrance, but also in a splash-out of cash that could rival that of a modest Internet start-up.

“Being social is definitely an expensive proposition if you want to go full boat,” said Alexandra Lebenthal, the chief executive of a wealth management company.

The question is: Just how expensive?

Few women contacted for this article spoke for attribution. But based on interviews with over two dozen members of the benefit circuit, many of whom go to two or three events each week, and at least five big-ticket parties a season — at places like the Waldorf-Astoria or Cipriani 42nd Street — those affairs demand a drop-dead gown ($3,500 to $20,000) and as much as $5,000 for a ticket (or $100,000 for a desirable table), bringing the tally to more than six figures during the season from September through its frenetic close in early June.

In a single week this month, the Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Gordon Parks Foundation, the Battery Park Conservancy, International House and the New York Public Library all staged events in New York, with three of them on the same Tuesday night.

Men rarely spend great sums on their formal wear. “But I see women who have at least three or five new gowns a year,” Ms. Lebenthal said, estimating the annual tab for their evening wardrobe at $100,000.

That’s to say nothing of personal maintenance — $240 to $500 for a private hair and makeup session with Vênsette or Alexa Rodulfo; as much as $450 a week for a personal trainer at AKT in Motion, a gym popular with the Park Avenue set; and the flurry of minor cosmetic procedures that often precede such events.

Then there is the companion. “Most of the time it’s the women, not the husbands who want to go out, so you need to pay for the walker,” said Jill Kargman, a frequent guest at Manhattan’s showier affairs who has lampooned the foibles of her class in books like “The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund.”

Factor in the price of a car service, the private thank-yous in the form of flowers and luncheons, and a personal publicist or two, and the total can be dizzying.

What does she spend on her forays into the social arena? Natalie Leeds Leventhal, who supports the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Museum of the City of New York, smiled. “Ignorance is bliss,” she said.

These days “society” encompasses not only social figures like Ms. Leeds Leventhal, whose lineage, she said, dates back to Colonial times, and self-made magnates with a philanthropic bent, but a service meritocracy of hairdressers, designers and dermatologists who are eager to cement bonds with their clients.

Gervaise Gerstner, a Park Avenue dermatologist, attends several fund-raising parties a year. “It’s good for friendship to network and see your patients,” she said, “and it’s certainly good for business.”

Just as visible are models whose names increasingly turn up on benefit committees — women like Hilary Rhoda, who supports the Apollo Circle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which raises funds for art conservation, and Jessica Hart, who was on the committee of the Un Ballo in Maschera, a benefit for Save Venice — and a score of well-connected, if mostly ornamental, young women about town.

The chance of being snapped by party photographers like Mr. McMullan or one of Mr. Farrell’s minions spurs plenty of women to pay full retail for their gowns, as did Sarah Irby, an Estée Lauder executive, who went to Bloomingdale’s for the Badgley Mischka gown she wore to the Conservatory Ball; Kimberly Putzer, who had her Alice Temperley frock flown in for the affair from Los Angeles; and Katie Krause, a YouTube host and producer, who picked up her Lanvin at Barneys New York.

But others cut corners, stopping off at department store counters for a $50 makeup sessions, replacing $400 lash extensions with generous swipes of mascara, and swapping limousines for taxis. Often they borrow their dresses — a privilege of the young and comely.

“The beautiful Cinderellas, I call them — we love to see them in our gowns,” said Boaz Mazur, an executive of Oscar de la Renta, a firm that otherwise discourages borrowing. “At midnight they have to go home, and return the dress the next day.”

The practice is frowned upon as tasteless, if not as excessive as that of retaining a publicist, at $5,000 to $10,000 a month. “We tee-hee about those girls behind their backs,” Ms. Leeds Leventhal said.

Still, a social profile isn’t something that just comes along. “Public relations is a secret part of it,” said David Patrick Columbia, the editor of New York Social Diary, which chronicles the movements of the rich and famous. “It’s a way people have of telling whatever world they want to get into that they’ve arrived.”

Pragmatically speaking, “it’s important that when you ask for money that people know who you are,” said the publicist R. Couri Hay. ““Otherwise they hesitate.”’ Mr. Hay has been credited with introducing Amanda Hearst and the much-photographed Ms. Shafiroff to the philanthropic scene. (Ms. Shafiroff is also represented by Norah Lawlor.)

It doesn’t hurt, he added, if you’re slender, attractive and wearing Chanel.

Ms. Shafiroff has been known to wear frocks from Zara and J. C. Penney but is more closely identified with Carolina Herrera and Mr. de la Renta, whose showrooms she frequents. She and her gowns were seen at events including the American Ballet Theater opening night in May and the New Yorkers for Children 10th anniversary spring dinner dance, the Save Venice Black and White Ball and the Henry Street Settlement dinner dance, all in April. “When I chair an event, I buy a table,” she said, “and if I worked hard on an event, that’s when I would like to wear something new.”

Her motives aren’t frivolous, she said, quickly reeling off the charities she represents or on whose boards she serves, among them the Lighthouse International, the French Heritage Society and the Southampton Hospital, whose annual gala she has organized. As chairwoman of the hospital’s next big benefit, in August, she expects to raise $2 million.

The glamour of such women “can create a lot of buzz, and buzz sells tickets,” said Diana Petroff, a publicist who has groomed several New Yorkers for the society circuit.

About 15 years ago, Jennifer Creel, a supporter of the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, noticed a change at fund-raising parties. “People started getting photographed more and more.” All good,” she said. “I thought maybe it would get us more attention.”

That strategy has its rewards. “In a typical year,” Mr. Levy wrote, “Lincoln Center will hold no fewer than 10 galas that range in size from 250 to 1,200 guests and in gross proceeds from $250,000 to $5.5 million. They are critical to all aspects of our fund-raising operation.”

They also can be advantageous on a personal level. Attending parties is a boon to her business, said Ms. Creel, who sells cuffs and dainty pendants on her Web site. “If I’m seen or photographed wearing one of my pieces of jewelry, that’s visual branding.”

For others, there is an emotional payoff. “I think a lot of unhappy marriages are supported by charity galas,” Ms. Kargman said. “They provide a backdrop, theatrics and people you can laugh at together.”

New York, she added, is “the third partner in this ménage à trois of marriage. A lot of people would die of boredom without it.”

There are innocent pleasures, like the emotional charge of reviving a childhood game of dress-up.

“When I put on a gown, I feel like a fairy princess,” said Ms. Lebenthal, who was photographed at the Conservatory Ball in June, at the American Ballet Theater opening-night party in May, and in April at the Society of Sloan-Kettering ball, and dinners for New Yorkers for Children and the Henry Street Settlement.

“Leaving the stress of the day behind,” she added, “there’s a very specific happiness that brings me.” Truly ambitious types may aspire to become the next Babe Paley. “For these ladies,” said Daisy Prince, the editor of Avenue, a society magazine, “being photographed is a way of being immortalized.”

Whatever their motive, some women vie for the spotlight with ferret-like energy. “They are fully aware of the step-and-repeat,” said Mr. Davis of Scene, referring to the end of the red carpet and backdrop where photographers gather. “They wait in line until the publicist screams their name, get their picture taken, say hi to two people, then get in the car, change dresses and they’re off.”

Just where are they headed? “To the next party, of course.”

Photo: Yana Paskova, The New York Times

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