Video courtesy of Jonas Mekas

I don’t know about you, but galas are not an everyday thing around these parts– the closest this reporter’s been to a real black-tie-and-gown affair was high school prom, which didn’t even really happen because my date got arrested. So needless to say, when I was somehow allowed to crash the Anthology Film Archives gala –a fancy fundraising party and art auction held last week to raise cash for the theater’s expansion– I was just slightly out of my realm. It was made all the more surreal by a performance from Patti Smith, and seeing people like John Waters, Zosia Mamet, and Zac Posen’s eyebrows all in one room.

OK, so it wasn’t quite the Met Gala. But the theater’s DIY roots mean that Anthology has way more street cred than any froufrou uptown frolic could ever hope to have.

Patti Smith performs at The Anthology Film Archives Benefit and Auction on March 2 (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Anthology Film Archives)

Back in 1970, when Anthology first opened, the East Village was a completely different place– the kind of place where a grand old courthouse could sit abandoned and neglected for years. As co-founder Jonas Mekas recalls in the video above, 32 Second Avenue was a “ruin” when he and his partners began the daunting task of renovations– the disrepair was so intense that even the city, which owned the building, discouraged him from buying it. Undeterred by either the city’s warnings or the neighborhood’s reputation (which a program handed out at the gala described as “a dilapidated drug slum”), Mekas pressed on. “We’re going to build a cathedral of cinema,” he declared.

Just before her performance at the gala, Patti Smith recalled the early days of Anthology. “I met Jonas in 1970 in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel– he was smiling his usual secretive, commiserating smile,” she said. “He’s been smiling and working ever since.” (It was clear just how long ago all of this was when Smith forgot some of the lyrics to “Pale Blue Eyes,” which she sang in tribute to Lou Reed on what would have been his 75th birthday.)

Auctioneer Simon de Pury taking bids for Chuck Close’s portrait of Jonas Mekas (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Anthology Film Archives)

Anthology started out as a much-needed cultural pilar in a community sapped of resources but nevertheless overflowing with so much of the defining art and important artists of that era. And weirdly, while the theater and “museum of film” hasn’t changed very much over the years, its significance in the neighborhood has– now a gentrified East Village is home to too many people with their own resources, thanks to a bloated real-estate market that meanwhile has drained the area of art and culture.

So there’s actually some urgency to the expansion (technically the final piece of the original layout plan), which will add a new eatery called the Heaven and Earth Cafe, and a whole new floor to house a library for Anthology’s massive collection of films and ephemera (when completed, it will be the largest of its kind in the country). As Anthology’s co-founder Jonas Mekas sees it, the expansion is a necessity. “The time came that we cannot postpone anymore,” Mekas told B+B back in January. “The cafe is for our survival.”

Michael Stipe joined Patti Smith on stage (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Anthology Film Archives)

Profit was never really the goal at Anthology, which has long been dedicated to independent film, local and first-time filmmakers, and its own program of cinema classics– all things that are notorious money pits. But Anthology has provided a forum for filmmakers and inspiration for artists of all mediums. Its loyalty and support over the years benefited many of the sparkly and successful people found at the gala, and may have even helped a few of them get to where they are today.

Judging by the showing at the gala, Anthology has a lot of great people rooting for them. The event raised $1.5 million with the help of art-auction contributions from some mega-successful artists including Kiki Smith, Chuck Close, and Matthew Barney (just to name a few). Still, the overall message from the speakers was that institutions like this one are more important than ever.

Michael Stipe and Patti Smith (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Anthology Film Archives)

Filmmaker Paul Haggis pointed to “the power of independent cinema” as a reminder. “Especially now. You know what this asshole has in mind for us, don’t you?” He then added what seemed like a jab at this year’s Academy Awards: “Art is the only weapon we have. We don’t need lovely speeches right now, what we need is activism.”

Patti Smith also drew a parallel between support for Anthology and the current political situation– encouraging everyone to be “thorns in the side of– nope,” she paused, catching herself before she said his name. “Just thorns in the side, keeping poking till they fucking bleed.”

In many ways, Anthology had a major roll in creating immense wealth in the East Village–if we’re talking cultural capital– and has ensured that it remained accessible to everyone, including young artists and struggling students, since its inception. Unfortunately, culture is something that’s almost too easy for people who are less interested in art than they are in cash to exploit and, well, cash in on. But at the same time that people seem to be waking up to the political situation and showing up to defend their beliefs and convictions in ways that Americans haven’t seen in decades, there might just be a similar shot in the arm for radical, DIY, and counter-culture cultural institutions. And maybe even and a revival of the sort of artistic spirit that fueled the ’70s art explosion in New York, the same one that helped build Anthology from the ground up.