Last Saturday evening, cousins Julia Casey and Lily Warnke, squeezed into silk tank tops and mini skirts and migrated to north Brooklyn. Later that night, they planned to make their way to a bar on the Lower East Side, but first, they had to attend a benefit for Ms. Warnke’s mother’s interdisciplinary art gallery and reading room, Proteus Gowanus.
As the young women traversed the event space—pausing in front of the outdoor stage (Ms. Casey: “I think that woman just sang about a Communist eating a fish”) and quenching their thirst with red wine—the crowd thickened.
For the last year, the theme of the artwork, installations, exhibits, and classes at Proteus Gowanus has been migration. “We looked at it from the point of view of populations, objects, the future, and time travel,” said Tammy Pittman, Ms. Warnke’s mother and the executive director of the space. But its meaning was flexible, she added, and meant to be used in a variety of different contexts.
Take, for instance, the theme of the benefit: nomads. “We wanted the benefit to focus on how people set up throughout space and interact with one another,” said Ms. Pittman. It also sounded like fun, she added, and seemed to fit the bill because “this is more a party about people than it is about objects or the future.”
The benefit, which was held in the establishment’s labyrinthine building—an old box factory—was more of a quaint affair amongst old friends and like-minded artists than a champagne and canapé fundraiser.
“It’s a really unconventional benefit because we really don’t do a kind of a cocktail party and speeches thing,” Proteus Gowanus founding director Sasha Chavchavadze said. “It’s more interactive and fun and connected to what we do all year.”
In addition to access to the many creative spaces of Proteus Gowanus—the Hall of Gowanus, the Observatory, the Reanimation Library, and the Fixer’s Collective, to name a few—guests could also partake in a number of interactive installations created specifically for the event, such as a follow-the-leader-type card game called Nomad, a series of world maps for charting peoples’ physical migrations throughout their lives, and tarot card readings.
“It kind of organically grows as we go on,” Ms. Chavchavadze said of the seven-year-old gallery space, which became a certified non-profit in 2010. “There’s a lot of love for the organization and I’m hoping we can keep it going because it’s very community based and people care about it a lot.”
After a set of gypsy songs performed by artist and singer Katya Redpath, guests migrated into the main room for the night’s main event, a live auction. As Ms. Redpath auctioned off each prize, guests clamored to outbid one another, raising the prices ever higher. But the prizes they were competing for were not your average auction items. Instead of tangible goods, guests were competing to buy “live experiences.”
“It’s a unique twist on the live auction,” Ms. Pittman said of the seven experiences up for bid. Of the selection, “Talking Trash,” a historical lecture and guided tour of the Gowanus Canal; “Literary Necromancy,” a guided tour through Green Wood Cemetery; “900 Years of Russian Art in One Hour;” and “Win Any Argument on Climate Change,” a one-hour lecture on all things climate-related, were the highest grossing prizes, with closing bids of $140, $135, $100, and $100, respectively.
As the event wound down, guests exited through the back alley, spilling out into the unusually cold night air. Tables were folded, food was packaged up, and bags of trash were deposited in dumpsters. Down the block, a thirteen-year-old boy and a hundred of his closest friends celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. A couple walked their dog. And Ms. Casey and Ms. Warnke checked their cell phones. It was a little after ten o’clock. Time for them to migrate back into the city.
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