The International Red Cross Ball, the grandest gala of the Palm Beach social season, is returning next year after canceling its 2018 ball at Mar-a-Lago. But the ball is not returning to the Southern White House — or the island.
Instead, the event will move across the bridge to West Palm Beach, to the new wing of the Norton Museum of Art, now undergoing a $100 million expansion.
When the Norton completes the expansion and opens to the public on Feb. 9, that night it will host the Red Cross gala, the first outside event to be held in the new Norton space.
The event will be held in the great hall of the new wing, which can accommodate 400 guests, said Alexandra Kikendall, the Norton’s senior special events officer for facilities rentals. She said the Red Cross event will showcase the museum’s expansion.
“We’re thrilled to have the Red Cross gala here,” Kidendall said.
The choice of the Norton is good for the Red Cross, too. It solves a sticky situation for the nonprofit, which joined two dozen other charities last year in fleeing Mar-a-Lago after President Donald Trump’s controversial remarks about the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
The Charlottesville protests, which included neo-Nazis, white supremacists and counterprotesters, left one counterprotester dead. Two police officers were killed when their helicopter crashed.
Trump’s statements that “both sides” were at fault in the deadly violence in Charlottesville were troubling to philanthropists who give money to organizations that hold events at Trump properties, including Mar-a-Lago.
This was especially the case for donors and philanthropic groups unnerved by images of torch-carrying neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
In an August 18, 2017, statement, the American Red Cross said it could not hold its annual event at Mar-a-Lago “as it has increasingly become a source of controversy and pain for many of our volunteers, employees and supporters.”
The statement added that “the Red Cross provides assistance without discrimination to all people in need…and we must be clear and unequivocal in our defense of that principle.”
Unlike other charities that moved their galas to other locations, most notably The Breakers, the American Red Cross canceled its ball altogether for 2018. It marked the first time in 60 years that the Red Cross did not hold a Palm Beach ball.
Some observers predicted that the era of the grand Red Cross ball, with its tradition of tiaras, ambassadors and royalty, would forever end.
But Red Cross supporters who asked not to be named said the nonprofit already had been seeking a way to ditch the old-fashioned fundraisers of the past and search for something new.
The new Norton wing fits the bill. The newly expanded museum promises to attract younger philanthropists drawn to the venue and the ageless appeal of art, supporters said.
At the same time, the Norton remains a popular cause for many older Palm Beach residents. Along with the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and the airport, the museum is one of only a handful of reasons why some Palm Beachers will venture to West Palm Beach.
Kikendall said the Red Cross began inquiring months ago whether the Norton would be open by February, the traditional month it held the ball.
The answer was yes, Kikendall said, “and we were able to accommodate their gala.”
The Norton’s first event is actually its own, a private museum fundraiser to be held Saturday, Feb. 2. The museum opens to the public the next Saturday, Feb. 9, and is open until 5 p.m.
At that point, the museum will close and begin readying plans for the Red Cross event.
Richard Greenfield, a West Palm Beach resident and Norton backer, said the move benefits both organizations. The Norton serves as a neutral site for the Red Cross, and the Red Cross will bring international attention to the newly expanded museum. “I think it’s great,” Greenfield said.
It’s unclear how formal the Red Cross gala will be, however, and whether the tiaras and sashes will be brought out of storage. Kikendall said she didn’t know, and the Red Cross did not return inquiries for comment.
But Kikendall said the great hall is an open, uncluttered setting that can accommodate dining tables, a stage and an orchestra. Guests need not fear bumping into art, because the one art piece in the space is located near the top of a wall. In fact, she said the great hall is more of a living room than a gallery, making it an inviting space suitable for events.
The Red Cross is the first of numerous outside organizations holding events in the new museum space.
Weddings, corporate events and other nonprofits all have booked events at the Norton, and the calendar is filling up fast. “Within the past two months, inquiries have grown by 150 percent,” Kikendall said.
She added that charities are eager to find a new, fresh venue in a bid to bring in younger faces at events. “I’ve seen that trend happening over the past year, and so this is to the perfect time for us to be opening, in the middle of the Palm Beach season,” Kikendall said.
The notion of holding events in an art museum may be novel in Palm Beach County, but it’s a common occurrence in other parts of the country, such as New York, where events frequently are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the American Museum of Natural History, said Burt Minkoff, a Norton backer and senior director of luxury sales for Douglas Elliman on Palm Beach.