The Chelsea Hotel management and architect Gene Kaufman launched a charm offensive last night in the hotel’s “Grand Ballroom.” Patti Smith came to sing and read poetry to a small media and arts crowd. Tonight, Smith will return to perform for residents. The artist is a longtime hotel alum who launched her career from Room 203. Kaufman and his client, hotel owner Joseph Chetrit, have been taking a beating in the press and in the courts for their renovations of 127 year-old hotel. Smith reached out to Kaufman, helping him to make good on a promise that the hotel would continue to foster the arts.
The singer allowed that her gesture doesn’t come without risks to her outside-of-society cred. During the performance Smith said she’s received plenty of flack. Yesterday, a New York Times headline highlighted the residents’ “skepticism” over management’s motives, using Smith to generate good will.
Though Smith was performing gratis, she said she came with an agenda: she wants young poets and artists to continue thrive at the hotel, particularly through an artist-in-residence program. She further detailed her hopes for the hotel on her website.
The event was held in two large rooms behind the check-in counter, recently re-dubbed the “Chelsea Ballroom.” Connected through a large arch, the two rooms were sealed off from each other for years. The more ornate of the two was a management office, and the other room was a studio belonging to Interview cover artist Richard Bernstein. When Bernstein died in 2002, the room was sealed off with yellow police tape to secure the valuable contents until properly inventoried.
It’s just such lore that the Kaufman and Co. must contend with, a series of stories that bound beyond the physical space. And it’s lore that has captured international attention. Before the performance Kaufman acknowledged bad press from as far away as Spain. While introducing Smith, the architect’s countenance was weighted. He only loosened up toward the last couple of songs.
For her part, Smith said that as an artist she likes see things move forward, but remains nostalgic for the old. She recalled old time tenants who longed for the early sixties, and before them tenants who reminisced about the early fifties, and then there were the tenants who mourned the basement flood that destroyed Oscar Wilde’s steamer trunks. But Smith said she also wants to help to bring the hotel into the 21st century.
She then launched into a song about dreams, questioning the reality of what was, and finished with lyrics professing “people have the power.”
Smith canceled last night’s performance for the tenants. According to the New York Daily News nearly half of the 80 tenants invited had declined the invitation. Smith said in a statement: “In respect for the wishes of the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association I have canceled tonight’s performance. My motivation was solely to serve the tenants. If this serves them better, than I am satisfied.”