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It’s fitting that the National YoungArts Foundation’s Backyard Ball is held during Hollywood’s awards season. The Miami-based nonprofit’s annual fundraiser in January is as close as the city gets to its version of the Oscars. There are awards, an emcee who keeps attendees from nodding off in their carb-free dinner and a dazzling spectacle of a show, with YoungArts alums who’ve made good dancing and singing their hearts out. Amid a brigade of billionaires — no wonder Harry Winston came on board as this year’s presenter — and Cher-worthy outfits (Miamians really dive into some uncharted style territory), Saturday’s 750-guest gala immediately got down to business about how the organization transforms lives.
Shalita Grant, who emceed, divulged that the arts education program provided not only the launch pad for her career — including recurring roles on NCIS: New Orleans and Santa Clarita Diet — but also her first opportunity to fly when she attended National YoungArts Week at age 17 (other high-profile alums include Broadway and Pose star Billy Porter, Kerry Washington, Anna Gunn and Viola Davis). Board chair Sarah Arison, displaying her baby bump in a sweater dress, noted several other alums — among them actor Justice Smith, filmmaker and composer Kayla Briet and pianist and composer Conrad Tao — who have also gone on to arts careers in her opening remarks.
Sitting at Arison’s table alongside local art collectors Mera and Don Rubell, Los Angeles-based artists Nikolai and Simon Haas accepted the 2019 Arison Award. The Haas Brothers had given a master class earlier in the day as part of the weeklong mentorship program for 159 YoungArts finalists in 10 disciplines, from cinematic arts to jazz and design.
“The kids ask the coolest, long-term questions,” says Nikolai, who’s hosted similar events for YoungArts at his L.A. studio for the past five years. “It’s like talking to the future, and we ended up getting more knowledge.”
The twins (whose older brother is actor Lukas Haas), have a rapport with Miami collectors, hence their first solo museum show, “Ferngully,” currently on view at the Bass museum here. The previous night, they were collector George Lindemann Jr.’s guests for Miami City Ballet’s “Dances at a Gathering.”
“We’d love to collaborate on a ballet,” says Simon, who adds that he quit ballet as a youngster after being bullied. “It’s the one thing I regret.”
Though they’re not showing at the hotly anticipated West Coast premiere of Frieze in February, the brothers — who’ve designed furniture for the likes of Tobey Maguire and have partnered on collaborations with brands including Louis Vuitton — are excited for the global art fair’s impact. They hope Frieze will further boost their hometown scene’s legitimacy in the eyes of the art world — and support a new L.A. art ecosystem that will allow them to show more often locally.
“Maybe more people there should spend money on art versus Ferraris,” said Nikolai, who’s participating in Frieze by hosting and cooking a dinner with Simon — both are amateur chefs and are known for preparing special meals for openings. “Not to negate the beauty of a Ferrari, but art is a better investment, and there’s more of a relationship with the person.”
The late Josh Roth, the head of UTA Fine Arts and their agent, exemplified that sentiment to a T. The brothers, who traveled with Roth and appreciated his realistic approach to the fine balance between culture and commercialism, are still grieving his unexpected death at 40 in September.
“It was the shittiest call I’ve ever received and left a big hole in L.A.,” says Nikolai, who recalls Roth’s unconditional support of their work. “He just wanted to do cool shit and didn’t worry about money.”
Several more honors were doled out. Real estate mogul Jorge Perez, whose name graces Miami’s main art museum, sat front and center as Arison announced the debut of his foundation’s Jorge M. Perez Award for YoungArts alumni in visual arts. Brooklyn-based artist Chat Travieso and Kathia St. Hilaire, a Yale MFA candidate and Florida native, shared the $25,000 grant.
The night also belonged to choreographer Camille M. Brown, who lit up the stage with her colorful braids spilling out of an exotic headwrap while accepting the 2019 Arison Alumni Award. Aside from running her eponymous dance company, she has more than a dozen musicals under her belt, including 2018 Arison Alumni Award winner (and Moonlight screenwriter) Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, which opened on Broadway on Jan. 8. Brown is already onto her next projects, Pal Joey and Magic Mike: The Musical. Asked whether she needs any R&D assistance for the latter, she said, “I’m sure there’s a busload of people waiting to do research.”
She couldn’t say much more since Magic Mike is still in development, except that the musical version will have its own spin and takeaways compared to the movie.
“I’m looking at the past, like Gypsy Rose Lee, to see how it can be reflected in the current,” said the beaming Brown amid her proud family.
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