Arts fundraisers vie for attention

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 Well-dressed couples mingled beneath the tent, beer and wine in hand, picking tuna appetizers from the silver trays that were carried by a team of black-clad caterers, half of whom spent much of the night smoking cigarettes out back. In the painted brick building beside the tent raged a boisterous art auction, thanks to a lively auctioneer. One man, wearing a button-down linen shirt, looked at his wife with pain in his eyes; she had spent nearly $1,000 with a nonchalant turn of her paper placard. 

A jam-packed fundraising season, coupled with smaller events, means our arts orga-nizations have to work hard to define their mission to donors. Among the attractions at the Bridge’s Revel were several bands, including We Are Star Children. A film was even shot and edited on the spot.

Scenes like these (this one from the Bridge’s second annual Revel fundraiser) play out in slightly modified forms in rooms across town as our local arts organizations work to raise funds—and their profiles. In the tepid economy, some of these events have grown more modest, spelling trouble for those groups that hope to distinguish themselves through big events.

The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, an artists’ retreat in Amherst, held two “rather large, full-scale, very intricate galas” in the last five years, says Carol O’Brien, VCCA’s director of planned and annual giving. This year the VCCA scaled back with WETPAINT, a silent auction featuring the works, composed in 24 hours, of 100 artists. But the event, says O’Brien, was only four months in the planning—a far cry from the amount of employee and volunteer hours it takes to plan a big gala. “Like everyone else,” says O’Brien, “we’ve had to face a lot of challenges in the past two years. Everything that we do has to work.” 

The Revel happened on the same day. Greg Kelly, the Bridge’s executive director, toted the Revel format, where large donors pay a $50 entry fee: “We get more high dollar donations at the door,” says Kelly. “It also gives them a snapshot and a sense of the space. These are people that know we’re doing good things, but may not attend events on a regular basis.” But Kelly won’t be planning parties over the long term; he says that many organizations like the Bridge have jettisoned the large annual fundraiser in lieu of four of five smaller events, scattered throughout the year. 

A week after the Revel and WETPAINT, the Piedmont Council for the Arts hosted a fundraiser at the Paramount Theater. Maggie Guggenheimer, PCA’s executive director, says that the spring fundraisers were “bottlenecked” because of her performers’ schedules—the Borup-Ernst Duo performed a retrospective of Judith Shatin’s music at the Paramount—to say nothing of PCA’s major fundraiser at McGuffey, nary a month away: at that event, 12 local female photographers will auction 40 photographs of high-profile women in the arts community, from Sissy Spacek to Wendy Hsu.

Open your hearts and wallets. Just pay attention to who you’re giving to.

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