The Frick Collection’s annual Young Fellows Ball was one of the last holdouts of the spring social circuit; planned for March 12, it was eventually canceled day-of, as most of New York City had newly shifted to working-from-home at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
Larry Milstein, the Manhattan-based social and founder of Gen Z-focused creative consultant agency PRZM, was set to co-chair the event, as well as host an after party at Omar’s La Boît.
“I saw first-hand how for these incredible institutions that had decades-running events it was no longer feasible for those to occur,” Milstein says over the phone from Long Island, of the Frick event’s cancellation. “But there was still this real sense of interest and untapped potential for people to step up and support important causes.”
So together with his sister Toby, Milstein is throwing a “virtual gala” this Thursday, with 100 percent of the funds benefiting the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the International Medical Corps. Around 200 guests, who will be sent digital invites, will pay a recommended donation fee of $25 and be invited to log onto a Zoom call, beginning at 6 p.m. EST. The dress code is open-ended; if you want reason to bust out a favorite spring gown now shelved, by all means, or if you want to rock “your favorite groutfit or your comfy pair of sweats, with a glass of wine,” Milstein says, “more power to you.” The expected crowd will include familiar faces of the New York social scene, from Shantell Martin, Athena Calderone and Paul Arnhold to Casey Fremont, Stacey Bendet-Eisner and John Targon.
“Given the fact that, in light of the global pandemic and the necessity to social distance, what I didn’t want to get lost was the opportunity for people to come together for an important cause, especially now when the demands for individuals to make a positive impact are even greater than in ‘normal times,’” Milstein says. “There was a real opportunity for there to be an event that could champion that, and serve as that unifying occasion to really make a positive impact.”
The Zoom call is trying to replicate many of the experiences typically had in person at any such event. Instead of passed trays of Champagne or an open bar of signature cocktails, mixologist Pam Wiznitzer will lead a live cocktail-making session (ingredients for a specialty cocktail will be sent to attendees prior to the event). Indie pop artist Anna of the North and DJ group Cheat Codes, both 300 Entertainment artists, will perform, logging on from Sweden and Los Angeles, respectively. And no event is complete without photo ops: BFA has been tapped to create a gallery of event images (how exactly that will play out remains to be seen. “There’s no playbook for how to do this,” Milstein says).
Milstein also sees this as an opportunity to open up who is typically involved in such events.
“We really want to almost reassess who we could have serve in a leadership capacity, and not just have it be some sort of the same charity circuit folks,” he says.
Milstein, at 25, says he feels a responsibility for his generation to be at the forefront of rethinking fund-raising for the digitally mandated world.
“Millennials and Gen Z, we’re the first generation to have been essentially raised on our smartphones, and to be groomed in this environment of the 24/7 news cycle, and social media, and the glare of our phone screens throughout our adolescence and adulthood. Of course we’re going to be the ones to also channel that for a positive cause as well,” Milstein says. “It’s almost incumbent upon us to be the ones to pioneer this new model, and take some of the best practices from earlier generations of folks who did incredible fund-raising, and now apply it to the environment that we are in.”
“As a digitally native generation, we have the potential to help reinvent what a charitable event looks like in the virtual space,” his sister Toby adds. “By utilizing two familiar platforms — Venmo and Zoom — we can maximize the impact of the event, offering people an accessible way to connect and be philanthropic through tools that have been highly adaptive for the COVID-19 era.”
It all sounds pretty good: 100 percent fund-raising, the chance to see exclusive musical performances, have fancy drinks, get your photo taken and socialize with friends, all from the comforts of your home. So will the virtual gala come to replace the in-person experience, once the pandemic flattens?
“A virtual gala is never going to fully replicate that sense of immersive experience that an in-person event, by definition, is going to offer,” Milstein says. “But I think there are really interesting ways in which taking it into a virtual sphere can actually open the door to a whole new type of experience that would not have been possible at a traditional, seated, black-tie dinner.”
And he hopes that other organizations, now without their signature spring fund-raisers, might be able to adapt his model for their own virtual benefits.
“The big thrust of it is that especially early on, as people began to social distance, I feel like there were two really concurrent forces that were occurring. On one hand, you had all of these individuals coming with creative ways to connect, because there was this need to see one another, so you had these happy hours or birthday parties on Zoom, or just hang-out sessions, and that was incredible. People found innovative ways to connect,” Milstein says. “Then I think the other concurrent force that was there was all this mobilization for people to try to make friends and to raise funds, and that was the GoFundMe model, where people were finding these causes, and rallying support for that. There was this opportunity to bring those two together, and this is what that event is intending to position itself as: those two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. There are ways to bring them together: that pull to connect, but also that urgency to make a difference.”
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