Scene Last Night: Bill Ackman, Herzog, de Meuron, Philip Glass

Park Avenue Armory
Adam Flatto, president, Georgetown Co.; Bill Ackman, CEO and founder, Pershing Square Capital Management LP; Jonathan Gray, senior managing director and co- head of real estate, Blackstone Group LP. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

At the Park Avenue Armory gala, you could walk off dinner just by circulating between courses.

That’s what Bill Ackman, chief executive of Pershing Square Capital LP, did Thursday night in the armory’s 55,000-square-foot hall, where 520 guests, including Iac/InterActiveCorp.’s Barry Diller and musician and artist David Byrne, had assembled.

Ackman, chairman of the gala with his wife, Karen, and a Park Avenue Armory board member, crossed the hall’s springy wooden floorboards many times, greeting employees, friends and colleagues as they tucked into their lamb navarin at tables covered in silver cloths.

Ackman also had a turn on stage, before Nico Muhly, Philip Glass and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performed there. What he called his “last unscripted remark” was the most memorable.

“A good friend of mine was just telling me that the last time he was at the Armory was for Schwarzman’s birthday party,” Ackman said.

(That party took place in 2007, thrown by Steve Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group CEO, to celebrate his 60th.)

“We’ve come a long way,” Ackman quipped.

A good punch line and true enough. The Park Avenue Armory has gone from hosting art fairs and birthday parties to mounting art exhibitions and accommodating a replica of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon for six weeks of performances.

Citi Private Bank

It has also recruited board members like Ackman and corporate donors. Citi Private Bank will be supporting programming at the Armory in 2012 and 2013, the bank’s CEO in North America, Peter Charrington, disclosed in an interview.

“We’re excited to bring clients here,” said Charrington. He plans to invite them to performances and private dinners in the Armory’s restored period rooms.

This week the Armory announced a $200 million renovation by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.

“The space is so flexible, you can have anything in here, from opera to tennis,” said Jacques Herzog, who like Ackman spent a lot of time walking the room in his black mesh shoes (one stop: the Parrish Art Museum table occupied by Dorothy Lichtenstein; the firm designed the museum’s new building, which is opening in Water Mill, New York, in the fall of 2012.)

In what were likely his scripted remarks, Ackman said he has been a particular supporter of the Armory’s educational programs for underprivileged children.

Potter Palace

“Kids love coming here. It’s like a Harry Potter palace to them,” Ackman said.

At her dinner seat, art historian Natasha Schlesinger described what it is like to take children on tours of exhibitions at the Armory.

“Kids walk into this space and they feel so free,” said Schlesinger. “They’re living in a city where everything is confined and narrow, and this gives them an amazing opportunity to explore.”

She had a programming suggestion, too. “I was saying to Bill they should do a haunted house,” she said. “Staying here with the lights out would be scary even to adults.”

The gala raised $1.26 million, said the Armory’s president and executive producer, Rebecca Robertson.

(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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