Keeping Events Fresh: 9/11 Memorial and Museum Gala

I’ve had the honor of producing and designing the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Gala since 2008. The event is a particularly good example of meeting the challenge to make sure an event both retains its essential spirit — in this case, one of remembrance and hope — while also evolving visually and reflecting the maturation of an organization over the years.

Because of the institution the gala supports, the event is somewhat uncommon in that it is an evening of both solemnity and celebration. It’s important that we honor those lost, while at the same time celebrating life, the human spirit and increased global understanding and compassion.

In one form or another, we let the artifacts from 9/11 itself remind us of the events and people of that day. One year, the artifacts served as a moving central stage element, while in other years we employed powerful photos of the aftermath or created interactive fundraising vignettes. We’ve also used a proscenium that displayed video clips and images of pieces from the museum collection.


In 2014, the first year the event was held, that the museum was open, we took inspiration from Spencer Finch’s piece, “Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning”, the only piece of art displayed in the museum. The work consists of 2,983 individual squares of Fabriano Italian paper, each hand-painted a unique shade of blue, and representing the individuals who died in the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. We integrated the simple and powerful concept of the piece by referencing it with table linens in varying shades of blue.

Hope has found expression in a variety of ways over the years. Our first year, thousands of “Notes of Hope” collected from people around the country were connected to form a dramatic stage backdrop and gave the inaugural event its name that year.


Children, of course, give us hope, and are symbols of the future, so kids are always an important part of the event. Tribute art made by young people has served as centerpieces; a dramatic sculpture of a phoenix rising created by kids was featured center stage another year, and a children’s choir has delivered moving performances at the benefit multiple times.

We’ve also expressed the spirit of hope through images of natural renewal. In 2011, fabric ceiling panels printed with green leaves simulated a verdant canopy of tree boughs, while the 2012 gala drew inspiration from the “Survivor Tree” a pear tree that survived the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and serves as a symbol of endurance at the museum and memorial site.


The event is not only about observing and remembering, it’s about giving thanks and being joyful. To help attendees celebrate, we’ve enlisted quintessentially New York personalities such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon and Michael Bloomberg, as well as longtime city residents, Muppets Elmo and Rosita —the last of which were huge crowd-pleasers – never underestimate the charm and power of a Muppet. And we’ve raised the tempo and temperature with acts like Ricky Martin and John Mellencamp.

It’s one of the highlights of my professional career to have the opportunity to work on this event for a truly amazing institution.