The Picky Ladies Who Power Lunch: Exclusive Art Group Turns 30, Lowers Standards

There’s a Sex and the City episode where Carrie buys a new pair of Manolos and a dress that costs “a month’s rent” to show up Big’s wife Natasha at the prestigious “Women in the Arts” luncheon. 

That sophisticated, sometimes glamorous gathering was likely inspired by New York’s own women’s arts organization ArtTable, whose annual lunch attracts an intimidating roster of philanthropists, collectors, curators and notables, from Hillary Clinton to Gloria Steinem to Yoko Ono. This weekend, the group will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary with events at Sotheby’s, AXA Insurance and a MoMA gala in lieu of that famous annual lunch. Anyone can buy the $750 weekend pass, but as the organization’s pseudo-cameo on SATC suggests, membership is a coveted social distinction. And, until recently, the only way to join was to be nominated by two members. “It helped people feel they were in special company,” said ArtTable president Lowery Stokes Sims, and it gave the would-be old girl’s club an air of “forbidden fruit.” She noted: “There’s nothing like being told you can’t be a part of something.”

But, as tony ArtTable turns 30, it’s lowering its standards.

It used to take two member letters or support, a résumé, a statement of interest and five years in the art world to get it. Now, because members’ recommendation letters were often coming in late, if at all, and ArtTablers found themselves fielding pleading calls from people they knew only “tangentially,” said Ms. Stokes Sims, the group has now agreed to allow for self-nomination. It’s a solution which Ms. Sims said addresses the group’s issue with diversity, It gives opportunity to a candidate who, say, “may be extraordinarily distinguished but didn’t have connectivity” in Wisconsin, for example. Membership fees, on a sliding scale of $100 to $350, are based on income.

Of course, there are lots of women’s organizations in New York. This one is different because the art world is. At various points in the past decade, women have been chairman, president or director of the city’s four main auction houses, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum and the Frick. Unlike many other New York industries or communities, chunks of the art world are run by women.

So what do all these chosen women actually do? “It is kind of a mystery,” said collector Toby Devan Lewis, or at least it was a mystery to her until she was a 2009 honoree. “To this day I still have people stop me in the street and say, ‘Hey, I was at that ArtTable luncheon.'” Going in, many of the 400-plus attendees at the Mandarin Oriental that year were unfamiliar with Ms. Lewis’ work curating the Progressive art collection or with her major donations to institutions like the New Museum. “It’s obviously a good ticket for someone in the arts to get involved in,” she said, especially “if one wants notoriety.”

It wasn’t always so glamorous. In the 1970s, before the group got its formal nonprofit status, it consisted of just eight women who worked at places like Sotheby’s, Pace and the Guggenheim–some in public-relations positions–gathering at Pang’s Chinese restaurant. “We couldn’t meet at the King Cole Bar,” said founder Lila Harnett, who was an art critic for Cue magazine at the time. They began inviting the most important women they could think of in the art world to join them. When someone came in from out of town, she might sleep on another member’s couch to avoid hotel costs. “Nobody was really in money,” said Ms. Harnett.

Today, “I can call someone at the Tate for information and say ‘ArtTable’ and they will accommodate me,” She said networking has always been the group’s focus. “You’d be surprised how many cards are exchanged at these things. There are always museum groups looking for supporters, corporations looking to pick up a bill on a catalogue, directors saying ‘I have a great idea for a show.'” Aside from networking events, members also attend monthly seminars, studio visits and guided gallery tours. 

ArtTable now has some 1,600 members nationwide, more than half in New York.

“We’ve had some pretty glittery people show up” to the luncheons said Ms. Stokes Sims. Toni Morrison and Kitty Carlisle Hart have spoken in the past, and, this year, instead of one honoree, there will be thirty, including Creative Capital’s Ruby Lerner and New Museum director Lisa Phillips.

Ms. Ono and Jenny Holzer have created awards. Still, Ms. Stokes Sims said she doesn’t “think it’ll be quite like Sex and the City–we don’t dress as well.”

The Picky Ladies Who Power Lunch: Exclusive Art Group Turns 30, Lowers Standards