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Art Narc: Galas – the Good, the Bad and the Fugly

Among the great myths of our time, like the Great Pumpkin, Santa Claus and Evolution is the myth that galas exist to altruistically raise money for the organization they support. Sure, there might be one event that qualifies as the exception that proves the rule. But for the most part, raising money is an ongoing and long-term endeavor; whereas galas exist for three purposes: to scout new blood for boards and donor lists, to reward individuals who have for one reason or another become “key” to the organization and to allow ticket-holders to look pretty for one night in hopes that they end up pictured in one of the city’s society pages. If the organization plays it right, then sometimes they do end up making loads of money during their event. But the rule of thumb is that the more money raised, the less the event was about the organization. And for those of us with really big thumbs, the second rule is that the amount of money raised is diametrically opposed to the need of the organization.

How does it all happen?

The first thing that happens in the planning of a gala is the decision as to who gets tapped to be gala chairs, usually a husband-and-wife team. There are some great, hardworking, enthusiastic and generous gala chairs out there and there are chairs who will make the organization want to slit its collective wrists. Most staff members of the organization understand that, unless they find really exceptional chairs, they are going to end up doing all the work. Absent the best-case scenario, their goal is to come up with names of people who have at least one foot in the reality-based community and who won’t end up being giant pains in the ass.

Like some of the Texas-sized diamonds that will adorn attendees, the challenges of selecting the right people are multifaceted. The right chairs will have at least a fleeting idea of what the organization does. They will have at least some sense of the time required, usually a year, and be able to show up for at least some of the meetings. They must, must, be able to bring in table sales at the top price — at the very least, they must be able to buy their own table at the top price. And they must have a network of friends who will participate in the event simply because they are chairs. This is tough because often times, the organization’s employees have a list of people they love and know would work hard, believe in the organization, etc., but who can’t be selected because they can’t even afford to buy their own table at the top rate. If the perfect chair can’t be found (that is, one willing and able to commit fully to the logistics, time and money requirements), then some organizations tap a mix of chairs who collectively fit the bill.
A few years ago, one organization had a hell of a time selecting the chairs for their event. The problem was that they had decided early on whom they were going to tap, but then no one tapped them. When someone finally did, the tappees passed, and by then it was getting close to crunch time. As this organization is on the more progressive side, they decided to tap the younger generation of old-money Houston. Then someone brought up a good point — wouldn’t it be a good idea to get someone who had actually been in their building? The idea of asking this couple was scrapped. Now it was really getting to be crunch time, the time when anyone who aspires to any social position would be insulted at having been asked so late in the season. Luckily for the organization, they selected someone very sympathetic to their cause who also had PaperCity aspirations and the event was on.

The next step is to decide on the theme of the event. In the best cases, the process can actually approximate fun as staffers and chairs bounce ideas around together to find something that hopefully works. In the worst cases, the most the staff can do is to brace themselves for ideas that either aim to resolve high school prom issues or require the import of most of Versailles. Trust me in that as shitty as the themes for these events can end up, they are far less shitty than the original theme. This is often due to the hard work of staff members who somehow manage, year after year, to nix the most harebrained ideas using the soft whispers of diplomacy. If successfully done, the parties involved are simply left to believe that they are choosing a better theme, rather than just a less shitty one.

OK – Pop Quiz: Gala Theme or Prom Theme?

Royal Winter Wonderland
Thriller of the Night
Dancing Under the Stars
An American in Paris

If you said “Prom” for any of these, you are most wrong, grasshopper. All the themes listed were galas recently held in Houston.

Right around the time that the theme is chosen, the Honorary Chairs are also chosen. Sometimes the chairs are involved in the decision; most times they are just taken into consideration so that the persons chosen as Honorary are not their mortal enemies. Here, the decision has all to do with money because no matter what else happens, the Honorary Chairs will end up underwriting the event big time. If you ever see that this does not happen, either someone screwed up or the Honorary Chairs are truly awesome (non-financial) supporters of the organization.

So the chairs are chosen, the theme is cultivated and the Honorary Chairs accept the honor. Now the crew that actually does all the work steps in. The selection of this crew is of particular importance to the staff since if they choose correctly, they’ll get people who will actually get the work done. We now come to the committees and the committee chairs.

The Terrible Beast
The process of deciding how many gala committees to have and who is going to chair each is like figuring out how many cats fit in a kennel — intellectually you have an idea, but logistically it’s a nightmare. Many factors are considered, but chief among them is that these committee chairs are going to have to do some of the heavy lifting. There is no hard or fast rule as to how many committees there will be, as each organization pretty much knows what it can and can’t do. Typically, committees are required to organize auctions, entertainment, logistics such as catering and décor and publicity. Some organizations will add and subtract from the list while other organizations will hire an event planner and be done with it. But the success of the event usually rests on the shoulders of these committees and their corresponding chairs.

In recent years, one committee that seems to be a part of every event is the “Host Committee”. The idea started innocently enough: Create a group of people with intimate knowledge of the organization, such as its Board, who could be counted on to support the event with or without playing a formal part. At some point, however, this protocol has taken a life of its own. Now it seems that the Host Committee is basically anyone who has ever had anything to do with the organization. Well, not really, but one recent invitation had a 59-member Host Committee at the time of printing. It would seem that this organization’s goal is to have the gala evening made up entirely of Host Committee members. A goal, I’m sure, they will reach in the next couple of years.

Because the objective of the event is to raise money, the Auction Committee usually has its work cut out. Typically, the Auction Committee chairs will tap their friends with or without affiliation to the organization to create the committee. The group meets to brainstorm about possible auction items or packages and who they know who might donate. The best approach at this level is a “sky’s the limit” approach that generates an exciting wish list. The wish list then becomes the “action” list. The group decides if they know anyone who can donate the items it wants and the race is on.

But nothing is ever easy, and securing auction items is tricky at best. The best part is when the getting is easy. Most artists tend to be very generous when asked to donate. Some, like Al Souza, have even developed a version of their work that is only used for donations. In Souza’s case, his puzzle pieces are translated to a small scale. At around 7 x 8 inches, these are wonderful little jewels that tend to do very well at auction. Another artist who donates often is Benito Huerta. If you ever see his work in a collector’s home and it includes a one-dollar bill, then the item was donated. The worst thing is when an artist or even a supporter agrees to donate and then takes a “garage sale” approach to the donation. This is stuff that isn’t very good and that the giver doesn’t really want. The committee is left to finesse their way around the gift by asking themselves, "how are we ever going to get rid of this crap?"

Hotels tend to be very generous to most organizations and are happy to donate lodging. The trick is to get the request out as early as possible and to get a firm calendar period for redeeming the donation. This avoids any embarrassing situations, like when a patron wants to redeem hotel rooms at the W in New York three years after the event.

It’s nice to include a flight with out-of-town packages, but Continental Airlines is a mystery. They seem to donate to big events in town and love to be called “The official airline of…”, but there must be a secret handshake at work here because as one Auction Chair was recently advised, “Continental only supports organizations with which we’ve collaborated in the past.”  Mind you, the organization had been trying to collaborate with them since the 70s. So how exactly do you develop a track record with them if they’ll only work with you if they’ve worked with you in the past? The letter wasn’t even signed, so the Auction Chair couldn’t call to use his skills of persuasion. All I can think of is that this concise and curt letter must be Continental corporate-speak for "fuck off".

So the committee gets some great trip packages, some great dinner packages, some great art and some other great stuff. And the committee has taken some good advice and has done away with the live auction — like this is ever going to happen, but it really should. Live auctions are for commodities like livestock and Damien Hirst. At events, they tend to be total buzz-kills making those not bidding, about 98% of the crowd, both self-conscious and jealous of the bailed-out investment banker with the fat wallet and hot chick that just paid $50,000 for a puppy.  Enough already with the live auctions — but I digress….

So after all the great stuff is brought together for the event and great care has been taken to be sure a bar is placed in close proximity to the auction, the fun happens. Fun, that is, like when someone walks out of a public bathroom with toilet paper stuck to their shoe or when a rising socialite’s nipple pops out of her dress.

A good Auction Committee Chair will socialize in the auction room to get the bidding flowing. A great Auction Committee Chair will size up the alpha egos in the room and mention to Patron A that Patron B has just bid on a wonderful package to Big Sur. You can be sure that Patron A and B will duke it out via the bidding sheet for the rest of the evening and will end up bringing in some big bucks for the organization.

A good Auction Committee Chair will prompt patrons to get the bidding started on items without bids. A great Auction Committee Chair will already have two or three friends who will automatically be first bidders. On a good night, these people serve as engine lubricators; on a bad night, they will purchase ten of the 40 items. At least they’ll already have all their Christmas shopping done.

A good Auction Chair looks out for the organization to ensure maximization of potential proceeds. A bad Auction Chair will walk up to a very excited bidder and tell him, “do you have any idea who you are bidding against?”

This actually happened once: it turned out this Auction Chair was a friend of the other bidder, a prominent socialite. When asked who the other bidder was, the chair simply offered her first name, as if that should be enough. The bidder must have worked for Continental’s corporate giving department because he very calmly told the chair, "then why don’t you go find her and tell her to fuck off?"  

All the other committees have their own intrigue and special dynamics. The goal is to have interesting people who will work hard while not burning down the house. As my mother used to say when I was little, "as long as no one bleeds, everything is OK."

The Ghetto Galas
The word “ghetto” is a loaded phrase indeed. In the historical sense, it was a usually poor area of a city inhabited by people sharing in race, religion or social background. This segregation usually occurred because of discrimination. Though the lines have blurred somewhat and the word in some cases connotes a celebration of itself, as in "ghetto fabulous", the word still manages to describe marginal areas in most of our major cities, Houston included. On the eve of the inauguration of this country’s first African-American president, this is a sobering thought.

And one would have thought the separate but equal doctrine had fallen by the wayside. Not so, at least at one major Houston institution. African-Americans have their own gala, as do Hispanics, whose gala is usually timed to coincide with Cinco de Mayo. The event for Asians usually has an air of the exotic, along with some title that most likely includes the word “emerald” and/or “treasure.” Of course there is also the big annual event. It doesn’t bar any of the aforementioned groups, but the face of the event, the organizers and the people honored, and to be honest most of the attendees, will only include people whose last name is White….if you get my drift.

“Ghetto Galas” is the only way I can describe the ethnicity-specific fundraising events held by this major arts organization. I asked a friend in the know about this and he says that it’s all about the money. The more groups that can organize; the more competition there is to raise more money and show up the other group, the more the organization makes. On the face of it, the money raised is earmarked for specific projects that often relate to the group itself.

But can this be possible? Would a major and important non-profit organization contribute to the segmentation of our community, especially in light of our Jim Crow past, simply for the promise of more bucks? Even if this organization already has a multi-hundred-million-dollar endowment? "Yep," my friend said.

The Aftermath
The first thing an Executive Director wonders about after an event is how much money was raised. The very-near second thing that the ED wonders about is who’s pissed off.

A lot can happen at an event and a lot usually does. Great care is to be taken with the thank you notes. Immediately following the event, the same night even, an email should be sent out to the lead event principals to thank them for their hard work. Within a few days of the event, a formal thank you letter should be sent out. And within a couple of weeks of the event, each of these event principals should be taken to lunch. If at all possible, a small token of esteem should be given to each of these people. Sometimes the smallest things, given in sincere appreciation, go the longest way.

It is also important to remember all the people, companies and organizations that donated to the event. The organization’s staff member in charge should coordinate letters to be sent out thanking each person for their support. The letters should be signed by the corresponding committee chair. This is especially true if the committee chair actually busted his or her ass. One recent bustee was horrified to find out that in an ill-advised proactive moment, the organization sent out rudimentary thank you letters, complete with typos, to all supporters and had a mid-level staffer sign them. To make the situation right, this person politely, yet firmly, instructed the organization to prepare a second batch of letters that would be sent by her.

It is very important for the Executive Director to put on his or her investigative hat and determine who was left unhappy by the event and why. Sometimes there isn’t much to be done. A recent sold-out event yielded plenty of bucks but lost a Board Member when he felt his table was far too close to the exit. Try as she might, the ED just couldn’t apologize enough to retain the dues, um, I mean, Board Member.

Another sticky situation occurred at a different event two seconds after an auction closed. A staff member suddenly freaked out and screamed at the Auction Chair that he needed to close the auction by “banging the gong” – a small, hand-held gong traditionally used by this organization to announce that the auction had closed. The staffer then snatched the gong from the stunned chair and proceeded to march through the auction banging it loudly. All the Auction Chair could do was to turn to another event organizer and ask, "who the hell was that?" In this case, the ED very efficiently issued an apology, and then had the staff member killed…

Thank you for coming
All in all, the formula is very simple: A gala evening in celebration of an organization is successful if the money raised is more than the money spent on the event. This is a no-brainer, but it might come as a surprise to learn just how much money some organizations spend on one evening. A few years ago, an organization that provided HIV-AIDS related services tapped a group of supporters and asked them to come up with an event that they would host to raise money for the organization. These “Mini Galas” would take the place of a larger event. One supporter started to organize her evening and preparations were well under way when she realized that her event was going to raise as much money as she was going to spend in having it. In a moment of clarity, she cancelled the evening and wrote a check equal to the projected cost and profit. The organization’s Executive Director thought it was a novel (and refreshing) approach.


M.U. Lakshmi is a writer, art collector and student of the world. 

Other articles from the Art Narc series:

 { Secrets Revealed }

Art Narc: Bad Artist Statements

{ Secrets Revealed }

Art Narc: The Collector

{ Secrets Revealed }

Art Narc: Battalino over Commerce Street

{ Secrets Revealed }

Art Narc: Behind the Scenes at Art Basel Miami


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24 Responses

  1. tobrienwriter

    Reading this article induced some kind of narcoleptic fit. I scared the dogs when my face hit the desk. Waking back up, the subject simply makes me want to do something violent…involving poop.
    I want to read the same article, only written by Clark Flood.

  2. Sandrine

    anyone that has ever worked on one of these cluster fucks can relate to the article. Having been one of the lower level peons at many a gala I found the article entertaining. and i love the picutures, the heads have been removed to protect the innocent or not so innocent as the case might be. god forbid we enrage one of the demi-gods of high society. they might jump out of their overpriced seats and smite us with thier bodacious tatas.

    Life is too Short….Wear More Makeup!

  3. Asshole

    theremin that is like asking why cancer doesn’t collect art or why doesn’t an obese 54 year old man giving a 10 boy in a not USA country a blowjob not collect art? Why doesn’t a bottle of Viagra not collect art?

    Honey it does.

  4. theremin

    Hey, you tell me if you can get it up after eating a handful of Oxycotin and chasing it with Johnnie Walker Red label… Viagra might come in handy. Except you might see everything with a blue tint (a side effect), and that would drive the jerkie crazy (if it hasn’t already.) : )

  5. theremin

    Non U S country blowjob? I forgot … Rush prefers the Gary Glitter suite at the Super Adventure Club, Cambodia. He also planted his own habitrail tunnel in Richard Gere’s ass when he passed out at the Manhole.

  6. Trungpa Ricochet

    As suggested by Michael Jackson: Tossed Salad with Neverland Ranch Dressing
    Soup du jour: Cream of Sum Yung Gai

  7. theremin

    No. Nothing terribly cryptic. Rush Limbaugh is a pill popping idiot. Have Trungpa crunch the numbers, and report if there is anything to be found that was not intended on my part. There have been cases where I did not intend to make references to anything else, when in fact I did. For instance, I have been an advocate of a band using the name, Olivia Neutron Bomb. I later discovered that Crispin Glover used this band name in the video, the Beaver (?) trilogy. Where he, Sean Penn and some other crazy all did a video advocating Olivia Newton John cover bands in a small town in Oregon.

  8. Trungpa Ricochet

    Also, math was never my strong suit, theremin. Rush Limbaugh must crunch a few numbers in Phnomh Penh, though.

  9. theremin

    let me clarify. the outside men’s room reference was about the gentleman from idaho getting caught in minnesota. Rush Limbaugh can only crunch pills and smoke them.

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