As the sun set in Manhattan’s meatpacking district on Monday evening, the Whitney Museum of American Art swelled with crowds for the opening of the 81st Whitney Biennial. This year’s show, “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” contends with questions of what is “real” through works about the rise of artificial intelligence, the fluidity of gender and the fragility of nature.

Critics and gallerists brushed past the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky while he studied a series of sculptural figures by Rose B. Simpson.

“I read the museum’s text on the wall explaining it, and I like this year’s theme,” Mr. Aronofsky said. “Everyone is thinking about the same things in the world right now, so I like the idea of considering our current reality through art.”

On the ground level, a D.J. played Latin dance hits to crowds of art world figures who sipped Paloma cocktails and traded industry gossip. The museum’s stairwells were packed with guests navigating the building’s floors to reach works by Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Pippa Garner, Holland Andrews, Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio and JJJJJerome Ellis, whose art (and name) probes the condition of stuttering.

On the fifth floor, David Byrne — who wore white pants, white sneakers and a white jacket — gazed at a sculpture by Jes Fan. RoseLee Goldberg, the curator and art historian, admired an installation by Dala Nasser. The show’s co-curators, Meg Onli and Chrissie Iles, warmly greeted artists.

Groups lined up to see Lotus L. Kang’s installation “In Cascades,” which consists of hanging sheets of light-sensitive film that will morph over the course of the biennial’s run.

“These pieces of film are continuously evolving,” Ms. Kang said. “They’re porous, taking on their own lives, and that precarity is also the reality of the human condition. Nothing is in a fixed state, including the body and identity.”

Elsewhere, the fashion designer Cynthia Rowley wended through throngs of bespectacled art people with bowl haircuts. At a cocktail table, the critic Dean Kissick traded notes about the biennial with Mary Boone.

“I’m going to be writing about this show, so I’m still collecting my thoughts, but I think it’s abysmal,” Mr. Kissick said. “According to this biennial, art is going backward in time to a more conservative place. What I mean by that is there’s a tendency right now in art to pair progressive politics with conservative forms, mediums and aesthetics, and that’s what I see here.”

On the sixth floor, Dustin Yellin considered a work by Mary Kelly, “Lacunae,” that used calendars to explore aging and mortality.

“To me, this year’s biennial theme is about the psychic interference and frenzy dividing the country right now,” Mr. Yellin said. “The art here is reflecting on how people can come together again.”

Outside on the balcony stood a large and unsubtle installation by Kiyan Williams that tied together some of the show’s thematic threads. Titled “Ruins of Empire II or The Earth Swallows the Master’s House,” the earth-based sculpture depicts a column-lined facade of the White House sinking into the ground.

As the museum cleared out for the night, a few guests lingered on the balcony looking at the wreck, and staring at the American flag planted on its top fluttering in the wind.

While New Yorkers were still forming their opinions on the Whitney Biennial, another art world event got underway. On Thursday evening, the Grill and the Pool restaurants in Midtown were host to the annual gala of the Art Production Fund, which commissions public art projects like the lonesome Prada Marfa installation in Texas and Seven Magic Mountains in Nevada.

The Grill’s metal chain curtains shimmered as a cocktail hour started around 6 p.m. and the room filled with celebrities like Olivia Wilde and Drew Barrymore. This year’s gala was cruise ship-themed, and servers wore captain’s caps while they circulated trays of crispy artichokes and sliders. A few guests sat in deck chairs drinking blue margaritas with cocktail umbrellas.

Debbie Harry and Cynthia Rowley caught up with old friends in the crowd. The fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti admired an installation by Laila Gohar, the chef and artist known for her whimsical food-based works, made with hundreds of oyster shells. And Huma Abedin hung out by the bar with the hotelier Sean MacPherson.

“I think we’re always looking for beauty where we can find it in New York City,” Ms. Abedin said, reflecting on public art’s value. “Walking up Park Avenue, or through Madison Square Park, and seeing whatever might be on display offers me a moment of escape. As New Yorkers we need things that make us see beyond our apartments and public art democratizes beauty.”

Mr. MacPherson shared her sentiment.

“A city that does not have public art is a diminished place,” he said. “Art is what separates us from barbarians.”

Mingling in the fray were also some of the city’s young art world players like the artist Chloe Wise, the art dealer Max Levai, the Vanity Fair writer Nate Freeman and the gallerist of 56 Henry, Ellie Rines.

“Because public art is ‘public,’ for some people it goes with a kind of notion that it can’t also be challenging,” Ms. Wise said. “There’s a snobby aspect to people overlooking it, and that’s also why the Art Production Fund is so important.”

Ms. Rines had brought along one of her artists, Cynthia Talmadge, as her date. “It’s true, public art sometimes gets seen as lacking flair, but this event always gives it style and flair,” Ms. Rines said. “I’ve always loved the Picasso-inspired sculpture that sits in that plaza in SoHo.”

Guests soon sat for dinner in the regal space of the Pool. They nibbled on smoked salmon served with latkes and capers as shirtless dancers, performing choreography by the artist Shikeith, splashed in the room’s illuminated pool. Titled “Visiting Hours,” it paid homage to the gay cruising culture that once thrived on the piers of the Hudson River.

Casey Fremont and Kathleen Lynch, the nonprofit’s directors, provided opening remarks to begin the fund-raiser, which raised over $850,000. A live auction was then led by Sara Friedlander, a deputy chairman at Christie’s, in which a nautical-themed painting by Joel Mesler, “Untitled (Cruise),” sold for $120,000.

After guests finished their lobster ravioli from Carbone, and seemingly endless orders of martinis arrived at tables, the restaurant slowly emptied out for the night. Sitting alone together were the artist Anna Weyant and the podcast host Eileen Kelly.

Ms. Kelly mused on the power of public art.

“I’ve always loved the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park,” Ms. Kelly said. “So many kids grow up seeing that, and they’ll never forget it, even if they don’t realize it at the time. It’s a wonderful sculpture that gives back to people.”

“I think public art is sexy,” she added. “Our world can be so ugly, so why not make it more beautiful if you can?”

By Alex Vadukul and Rebecca Smeyne

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