With the amfAR Gala set to make a return to Palm Beach on March 11, we’re looking back at some of the glitziest, most star-studded “glamfAR” parties. In PALMER Vol. 1, Tim Murphy interviewed Kevin Robert Frost, amfAR’s CEO since 2007, about the history of the event; get a preview below and read the full Q&A in PALMER Vol. 1, available now.
You’ve probably heard of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. But how about glam-fAR? That’s what many folks call the HIV/AIDS research powerhouse, famously started in 1985 by Elizabeth Taylor and Drs. Michael Gottleib and Mathilde Krim during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The nickname reflects that the nonprofit is known so thoroughly for its glittering, celeb-heavy galas—everywhere from L.A. and New York to Cannes and Hong Kong. Now, as Palm Beach welcomes a new (and New York-heavy) wave of wealth and philanthropy, it joins the roster of cities to shower largesse on amfAR. This spring, art-collecting power couple Amy and John Phelan hosted a gala for the charity in their newish modernist home.
Now, lest you think the “glamfAR” moniker bothers Kevin Robert Frost, who’s been with the organization since 1994 and has been CEO since 2007, think again. He honors the sobriquet, in fact, because it speaks to the high-octane events that bring in millions each year to fund amfAR’s grants to top researchers worldwide who are working nonstop to crack the code on a cure for HIV.
Tim Murphy: I’ve heard you say in an interview that anyone needs to be able to explain their organization in the course of an elevator ride—an elevator pitch, basically. So what is yours?
Kevin Robert Frost: It’s straightforward. We’re a biomedical research organization funding research to find a cure for AIDS. We’ve been laser-focused on cure research. That’s our heart and what motivates us every day.
T.M.: So, pivoting away from hard science, I wanted to ask you this: amfAR is really known for these galas that are so lavish and star-studded that they can give the false impression that all amfAR really does is throw galas. Dispel that myth for me. Tell me how the money flows from the galas to the research.
K.R.F.: When I became amfAR CEO in 2007, people around me said, “We have this reputation—people call us ‘glamfAR’ because of these galas.” I had actually been living in Bangkok running amfAR’s TREAT Asia program when the board asked me to come back and become CEO. I had a lot to learn about fundraising. But I realized we did a poor job communicating our ultimate mission. So, not long after the Berlin Patient was cured in 2007, I gave a speech in which I announced that amfAR was going to put our money where our mouth is and commit 100 percent to research for a cure.
I was really criticized for that, by activist friends I know and love. I was accused of giving people living with HIV false hope. But to her credit. Dr. Mathilde Krim [a founding chair of amfAR, who died in 2018] supported me from the get-go. She stood up to some prominent scientists and said, “There’s no such thing as false hope.”
So at the same time, I also decided that we were actually going to lean into our “glamfAR” reputation. And the reason is because those galas are the engine for our scientific research. And the secret is that we don’t pay for them—our sponsors do. Cartier, Chopard, Möet Hennessy. We let them pay for them to whatever extent they want. Then we come in, sell tables, bring in entertainment, and usually produce a high-end auction—and we take home everything we make from it. I think our L.A. auction brought in $1.3 million and our Cannes one up to $15 million.
T.M.: So what can, say, $1.3 million buy in research?
K.R.F.: Look at the three grants we just funded on NK therapy. We spent $600,000 to fund three grants. So $1.3 million could fund six at any given time. It’s used for salaries but also test tubes, microscopes, animal testing in more complex studies. Primates are wildly expensive, up to $4-5 million for one study.
You can read the full conversation between Tim Murphy and Kevin Robert Frost in PALMER Vol. 1, available now.