The party at the Norton Museum of Art Saturday night had all the trappings of the Palm Beach high season – those Stubbs & Wootton slippers, some fabulous gowns, and, with President Trump ensconced at Mar-a-Lago, a healthy disregard for the tax plans being floated by a wide field of potential Democrat candidates in 2020.
“They’re going to eat themselves alive,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said.
“Those plans are so antithetical for what’s good for growth in our country, they’ll go nowhere,” Citadel founder Ken Griffin said. Improving public K-12 education would be a much better way to address inequality than tax increases that are “trying to destroy the wealth creators of our society,” he added.
But maybe there was “literally zero” chatter about the Democrats’ tax proposals, as Griffin put it, because everybody was chattering about Lord Norman Foster’s expansion of the museum, which reopens next week. The gala celebrating the occasion captured, in one night, the energy and ambition of a new Palm Beach.
Griffin brought some of that energy as he dashed into the museum without stopping to look at his name in letters on the new building in West Palm Beach. He had a lot of people to catch up with before sitting down on gold cushions with Leonard Lauder and the architect to dine on melon and shrimp, filet and Bananas Foster.
An obvious topic was Griffin’s recent home purchases – a $123 million house in London and a $238 million New York apartment designed by Robert A.M. Stern.
“It’s as good as it gets,” Griffin said in an interview about his new pad at 220 Central Park West. “Steve Roth is an incredible developer.”
And with everyone in the room commenting about how Foster made the Norton feel so Floridian – a grand, old banyan tree has a starring role at the new entrance facing South Dixie Highway – the moment begged the question: would Foster design a house for Griffin in Palm Beach?
“He’s doing much more important work for me designing my office in New York,” Griffin said, referring to the office tower at 425 Park Ave. being developed by L&L Holdings’ David Levinson, who was just a few tables away.
Griffin gave $20 million toward the $100 million-plus Norton expansion, making him the largest donor ever to the museum. But he was quick to point out his newcomer status and the minor part he played in the project.
“All I was was money at the finish line,” he said. “It’s the board that did this, they deserve the credit.”
Plans to reimagine the museum began in 2010 when trustee Gil Maurer, who’d hired Foster to design the Hearst Tower, called the architect’s office (cozily located in Hearst Tower) about the Norton. Griffin came into the picture in the summer of 2016, when a Chicago friend, Jim Gordon, invited him to dine at Nobu in Aspen with Bruce Gendelman, a Palm Beach friend championing the project.
“The key was that Ken gave me his cell phone number,” Gendelman said. He used it to send Griffin articles and updates on the Norton project about every six weeks, until one day he gave Griffin a tour of the new building, having arranged for a random mix of letters on the entrance to show off the naming rights.
“I saw the space several months ago and I said ‘This is really an opportunity to do something special in Palm Beach, to honor my past and honor my future,’” said Griffin, who grew up in nearby Boca Raton. “It is spectacular. The galleries are beautiful. It’s wonderful to see all the local collectors’ works on display.”
The Norton’s leaders are hoping collectors like Griffin will decide to help it build and enhance its collections, and the opening exhibitions are designed to showcase the range of possibilities. There’s a room of just-finished paintings by black artist Nina Chanel Abney, with a Stuart Davis work hanging nearby. A Jenny Saville charcoal drawing of a Madonna and child hangs beside a lush 18th-century Italian painting. There are Chinese jades and work by Ed Ruscha, Picasso and Braque.
What does part-time resident Griffin like about Palm Beach? “I love to bike, I love to play soccer with my kids in the backyard,” Griffin said.
And then there’s the people to spend time with.
“It’s a great eclectic mix, that brings my Chicago and Northeast bases together in one place much more than any other place I could be,” Griffin said. “That’s what Palm Beach is.”