“Why do people go to museums?” Baird Jones asked. The question was rhetorical, offered up as he whisked The Transom through a private tour of his extensive collection of celebrity artwork, which crams the walls and fills the closets of his two-bedroom East Village apartment. “Isn’t the real purpose entertainment?”
Mr. Jones, a fixture on the downtown New York scene since his days as a doorman at Studio 54, continues to be a ubiquitous presence at events where celebrities, real and purported, collect. He started collecting their arts and crafts more than 20 years ago and recently put together an exhibition entitled Star Art, currently on display at the Chelsea Art Museum.
“I think my promotion of celebrity art makes me more lethal to the art world. What museums want is celebrities,” boasted the multi-talented Mr. Jones, who aside from his work as a curator is a contributing writer for artnet.com and moonlights as a nightclub promoter for (among others) Webster Hall, pumping the venue’s name by dishing his celebrity scoops to the city’s gossip columns in exchange for being credited with the unseemly byline “Webster Hall curator Baird Jones.”
Mr. Jones says he’s spent over $100,000 framing the collection, which includes over 500 works, from an illustration of bullfighters by James Dean to an acrylic battle scene painted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. The collection blurs the line between high art and low as much as it does the difference between celebrity and notoriety. Many of the pieces are little more than doodles. Some are merely signed posters; others are intricately composed paintings. But all visibly bear signatures, an essential component to the value of a celebrity work, according to Mr. Jones, who likes to read “Ph.D.-level art criticism” and sees a big future in his enduring obsession.
“The thing about celebrity art is that it’s the next movement. Graffiti was the first step, where they saw the signature as a statement. But then something has happened-I think it’s related to internationalism and the way New York has been robbed of its prominence.
“And so there’s an ironic statement that’s been going on that is now going to make celebrity art the new groovy thing.”
Regardless of where the art world is headed or what the far-reaching effects of “internationalism” may be, Mr. Jones-who likes to say he’s “a wealthy guy”-isn’t in this for the money. He merely wants to let others experience the pleasure of celebrity art, and he dreams of sending his exhibit on a national tour.
The reception on June 2 wasn’t quite the celebrity hoedown Mr. Jones had hoped for.
“When you see David Bowie walk through the door, it’s because David Byrne just walked in before him,” Mr. Jones had advised The Transom before the show. (Works by both Mr. Bowie and Mr. Byrne are in the show.) But it wasn’t a complete flop either: Featured artist Victoria Gotti Sr. turned up, Sopranos bit player Oksana Lada made an appearance, and “Hoop”-renowned about town for his van plastered with clocks, which he calls the “Time Machine”-was there from start to finish.
Mrs. Gotti had five pieces on display, most of which draw on her favored panther theme. “I equate the panther with a beautiful woman-smart, sleek, sexy and deadly,” she said. More generally, she takes inspiration from the work of Claude Monet. “He’s just my idea what an artist should be,” she said.
The creative widow of the Teflon Don, who tries to paint “a little every day,” is prone to sounding a bit like a goodfella herself. “I came here as a respect to you,” she told a beaming Mr. Jones, who was clad in his traditional uniform of preppy attire topped off with a Yankees cap. And when The Transom put foot in mouth, having let slip that Muhammad Ali’s painting of a jet was its favorite, Mrs. Gotti raised an eyebrow and asked, “You want me to smack you now or later?” But her tender side shined through as she gazed at her portrait of a woman on a dock. “She’s waiting for her man,” she offered.
The civilian turnout was more impressive. While opinions varied on the artistic merits on display, most of the fairly packed crowd in the Project Room section of the museum acknowledged a certain level of curiosity about celebrity artwork. The crowd’s attention, however, was divided between Star Art and the works of “urban surrealism” by Damon Johnson, the 26-year-old son of Page Six gossip columnist Richard Johnson, who was having a simultaneous opening, also curated by Mr. Jones, on the other side of the room.
(Mr. Jones and Richard Johnson are themselves old friends.)
Proud Papa Johnson, who plans to purchase some more of Damon’s art before the “prices get too high,” had some insights into the celebrity mind.
“I think a lot of people who do one sort of art think that they are multi-talented.” Assessing the celebrity artists on display, he added: “Some of them are dilettantes, some of the are just bad artists, and some of them are not.”
Mr. Jones, for his part, had mixed feelings about the success of the show. “I was very pleased, because nothing was stolen,” he said. “Lots of times, celebrity art gets stolen because it brings out the crazy element. I felt a lot of people were laughing at the art. They seemed to be ridiculing it. I noticed the Buddy Ebsens were a great source of guffaws. They weren’t really giving the art a chance. Everybody was there for girls first, the booze second and maybe mingling with Victoria Gotti third. Even with celebrity art-which draws more attention than any other kind of art-people don’t pay that much attention to the art.”
A Dangerous Place
“You will now surrender the briefcase and go home.”
It doesn’t have the same ring as “You’re fired,” does it?
But at a cocktail party at Serena last Thursday night, Eytan Schwartz, recent winner of the Israeli television phenomenon called The Ambassador, was getting his 15 minutes of fame, just like Kendra Todd of Apprentice fame.
Mr. Schwartz told the crowd, which had been invited to the historically hip bar under the Chelsea Hotel by the National Jewish Democratic Council, that being the last survivor on The Ambassador and winning the briefcase wasn’t such great shakes.
“It was a horrible and very cheap brief[case]!” he said. “My prize is you guys.” Awww.
As the crowd inhaled such traditional Israeli noshes as pita and hummus and guacamole and chips, Ambassador Schwartz, who has the face of Sean Astin and the soul of Clay Aiken, regaled The Transom with his life story.
As a native New Yorker, he was a dead give-away. In approximately five seconds, the spry guy in pinstripe black pants and a gray button-down-who seems younger than his 30 years-accelerated through his peak in Israel as a child actor, his de rigueur term in the Israeli army, a stint as an actor in Paris, his lowest point as an adult actor in New York (auditioning for a show in a midtown deli), and his highest point as an actor in New York: dancing with Sylvester Stallone on Saturday Night Live.
“What I did to become an extra-it’s crazy!” said the exuberant Ambassador.
He was obviously the center of attention in the room. Luckily, his girlfriend, Reut Heifetz, was out of earshot when a party-crasher, seemingly unaware of the purpose of the event, asked him flirtatiously whether it was “his gig” and if it was a party for a “dating Web site.”
Mr. Schwarz set the confused woman straight.
While the American Apprentices did things like sell lemonade, the Israeli Ambassadors had to sell Israel. One of their tasks was to create MTV Europe commercials promoting Israel, which Mr. Schwartz played for the crowd on the flat-screen television behind the bar.
Mr. Schwartz’s group came up with a spot that featured a sexy, bikini-clad blonde walking by a hot guy sunbathing on the beach.
The blonde, so distracted by the shirtless man, walks into a pole.
“Indeed, Israel can be a dangerous place,” a voiceover intones as the blonde is shown with a Band-Aid on her forehead.
Mr. Schwartz’s job during the production of the spot was to rub the chest of the male model in the commercial with suntan lotion once an hour.
The Ambassadors also had to sell pricey Israel tour packages on the Champs Elysées in Paris.
Mr. Schwartz had a leg up on the other Ambassadors for this task: He was already in the public eye as a television reporter on Israel’s version of Entertainment Tonight, Good Evening with Guy Pines. (That’s pronounced “PEE-nis.”)
So what exactly does the Ambassador do now?
“A lot of this stuff,” said Mr. Schwartz, gesturing to the surrounding crowd. He is now an employee of Israel at Heart, a nonprofit P.R. group dedicated to sexing up Israel’s image in the eyes of college kids. “We send out good-looking, cool, hip young Israelis to promote Israel,” said Mr. Schwartz, with an emphasis on the fact that Israelis love to party and can smoke and drink in bars at 18.
There were murmurs in the crowd that back in Israel, The Ambassador didn’t measure up to The Apprentice.
“It was a big flop,” Heeb Magazine photographer Joe Kohen told The Transom. A native Israeli with long brown hair held in check by a thick head wrap, Mr. Kohen said, in fact, “[ The Ambassador] was crucified by the press.”
Then what did Mr. Kohen make of Ambassador Schwartz’s claim that the show was the highest-rated reality-television show in Israel?
“Maybe it improved later on?” Mr. Kohen offered, admitting that he himself had seen only a few of the early episodes last winter before relocating here to New York City.
“My brother lives in Israel, and he’s never seen it,” another partygoer piped in. “But then again, he doesn’t have a television.”
Cue: Ghetto Thunder
June 6 was the first summer afternoon where the light gets weird, the sky goes dark, and sheets of rain pelt the hot asphalt. A filmic afternoon. And when the clouds started to break, and a smart set gathered at the pretty Bottino Restaurant in Chelsea, it remained so. It was the Ghetto Film School’s First Annual Benefit Dinner.
“You can all be proud that you were at the very first G.F.S. dinner in a nice, modest restaurant in Chelsea,” said filmmaker David O. Russell, the benefit’s co-chair, “because I promise you it won’t stay this way.”
It was with this buoyant, optimistic air that a plethora of filmmakers, philanthropists, executives, educators and students-the night’s central honorees-happily mingled through the four-hour, three-room dinner party. When the drink-sipping guests weren’t exchanging e-mail addresses, they were singing the praises of G.F.S.
“What the school has done is a miracle. A miracle!” gushed Lee Daniels, the producer of 2001′s Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball (and director of the upcoming Shadowboxer).
Last year, the Department of Education made G.F.S. a lead partner in creating the city’s first public high school for film (New Visions, located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx; it already has 270 students). And this past month, the group received the newly recreated Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture.
Standing tall and mighty in his crisp blue pinstripe suit, Ghetto Film School founder Joe Hall looked as much the heavyweight champion as inner-city educator.
“We’re going to keep it small,” he said. “The benefit might be bigger next year, like David said, but not the organization.” For now, Mr. Hall and the school’s board-chaired by film producer Rachel Horovitz-have modest plans.
“We’re converting an abandoned bank-note factory in Hunt’s Point into a 12,000-square-foot facility,” Mr. Hall told the fawning crowd, describing plans for the group’s new production and editing studios.
“It’s just completely awesome,” marveled Montea Robinson, one of the several attending graduates of last summer’s Fellows Program, “a nine-week immersion into filmmaking.” Wearing two armfuls of bracelets, which crackled as she accepted one of the night’s three biggest scholarship awards, the magnetic Ms. Robinson said that the Ghetto Film School’s greatest asset was its intimacy. “This isn’t about Hollywood, and it’s not about indie. It’s about the individuals.”
“I found myself working hard and getting extremely worked up about my films,” added Jawann Carmona, another former summer student and scholarship recipient. This winter, he worked for Jim Jarmusch as a production assistant on Broken Flowers, which last month won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
“He’s a great guy,” the young Mr. Carmona testified.
The scholarship awards-seven in all-were not a triviality. One after another, the students said proudly that the funds would help put them through college. Two of the three scholarships were sponsored, surprisingly enough, by Endeavor and the William Morris Agency (the latter’s trademark X’s decorated the inside of the night’s leaflet).
“It’s cool to say that the grown-up media is evil and impenetrable,” said Stosh Mintek, the group’s young and widely beloved education director. “But we would like our kids to have agents who push their next films. We want to change the studios rather than fight against them.”
“Isn’t he the best?” Ms. Robinson asked with a smile at Mr. Mintek, her former teacher.
She walked by to introduce herself to Ms. Horovitz’s brother Adam-Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys. His comrades were there, too: MCA, wearing a T-shirt and a conspicuously large backpack, admitted that he didn’t know much about the Ghetto Film School. “But anything Rachel is a part of is good with me,” he offered demurely.
Mike D seemed more involved. He sat for much of dinnertime bent low toward Mr. Mintek; the two talked for half an hour.
The night was full of a perpetual delight for Mr. Hall, for his students, for their school and its future. “It’s too amazing not to become a major New York institution,” Mr. Russell said.