How To Host a Successful Arts Fundraiser

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FACT: Artists need money to make art. Not only are the up-front costs for materials and space a constant and immediate concern, but sometimes artists like to eat food. And live in homes with walls and running water. Lofty goals, I know, but it is a career – a life really – that requires insane hours of dedication to a particular technique, and while the whole “turning it into money” aspect lays a huge fart in the middle of the brilliance and noble eccentricity of artistic endeavors, it is, unfortunately, necessary. This is where fundraisers come in.

FACT: Most artists are not good at raising appropriate funds. I’d wager that most people are not good at this and those that are probably work in finance or business…management and consumer…ism…I don’t know what these people would do. Maybe they work at math, another thing at which I fail, miserably. But I was lucky enough to attend a very successful fundraiser for Bryn Cohn and Artists (a promising yet virtually unknown choreographer and her dance company) at Castle Fitzjohns Gallery in the Lower East Side a couple nights ago, and I did my marketing professional best to break down the elements that added up to “great success.”

Rachel Abrahams and Aaron McGloin Perform a Duet; photo credit: Jaqi Medlock
Rachel Abrahams and Aaron McGloin Perform a Duet; photo credit: Jaqi Medlock

Despite the economic downturn, there are still so many rich people just walking around, tripping over their own money, wishing they had more stuff to spend it on since they own all of their favorite things already. The super wealthy are literally like, “I wish someone would MAKE SOMETHING NEW so that I could BUY IT FIRST!” And since even 12 year olds on the G train have the iPhone 5S, and Virgin Galactic is dragging their heels on their long awaited public space ships, guess where they throw a lot of their money? At artists! For their art! One just has to know how to ask for it.

In our Kickstarter age, it is super refreshing to actually have an event to attend where one can feel all “on-the-inside” and benefactor-y. Don’t be afraid to give the people some old time fancy. I know, if you don’t have the FUNDS to create a whole art work, how are you going to invite people to a fundRAISER where they view/participate in your art work? Invite them in your back door! Um. I mean…make your process open to the public. Bring people in to see unfinished work, sketches, rehearsals – show the world you have a vision, and let them peek behind the curtain. Normies salivate all over that experience. And it can’t hurt to keep in mind these basic steps for an event that boasts success in terms of finances and enthusiastic attendance.

Yuliya Romanskaya of Bryn Cohn and Artists Dances a Solo; photo credit: Jaqi Medlock
Yuliya Romanskaya of Bryn Cohn and Artists Dances a Solo; photo credit: Jaqi Medlock

1. Accessibility –  Castle Fitzjohns Gallery is an art gallery that, while super cool and loaded with pieces more expensive than my whole life, does not get off on its own exclusivity. They deal primarily in blue-chip work (that means your Warhols and Picassos) but the gallery location displays emerging and mid-career artists. One such artist featured on the night of the fundraiser in question is Ivan Roque, a graffiti artist from Miami. So while rich art types feel at home here, people like me who really wanted to pay the $15 donation at the door even though I can’t really justify it, didn’t feel like, “oops, I forgot my furs, I guess I’ll just take a cab back to my penthouse so I don’t ruin the soles of my louboutins!” Between “movement sketches” (more on that later) the dancers hung out and drank. (Dancers- they’re just like us!) And I mean, I’m friends with most of them, but I saw them talking to complete strangers! PRO TIP: do that. No one’s throwing money at a person with no face.

2. Freebies – Thanks to sponsors Absolut Vodka and the Bronx Brewery there was an open bar. I kinda feel like, “’nuff said” but I’ll say a little more because not everybody drinks. (I think there was food too, which is a good move, but I don’t know a lot about that because there was vodka.) Here’s why it’s important to give something other than a private look into the most vulnerable phase of your art and therefore your soul: patrons feel like they’re spending their money and the evening on you and your art which in turn makes them feel worthy and cool. But get a sponsor to give out “free” booze, food or gift bags with tiny artisanal soaps and Lisa Frank stickers and it’s gone from vague investment in your future and their karma to a totally sweet deal. And who doesn’t love a great bargain? In fact, rich people especially like bargains which is probably why they’re rich in the first place.

3. Cross Promotion – Bryn Cohn is unlucky. She’s a dancer and a choreographer which means her life’s work is the raisins in the trail mix of the fine art. Straddling the line between performance and visual art means missing out on audiences on both sides of that spectrum (which is so stupid, but that’s an article for another day – actually you can read my thoughts on the matter here.) Talking to Bryn’s apprentice, Michelle, at the event, I learned that the initial goal was to hold the performance in a traditional theatre setting. Once they realized only contemporary dance artist enthusiasts would attend, (there are dozens of us! DOZENS!) they started looking for non-traditional venues. Bars with performances spaces who typically showcase musicians; art galleries. Michelle happened upon Castle Fitzjohns one Sunday, and mentioned the idea to the manager and he was like, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!” or something. But prior to that, Bryn was turned down outright, strung along, and charged $8,000 at other venues when it finally clicked, and it was beautiful. She basically tricked people into being excited for an evening of dance by hosting it in a contemporary gallery showcasing art with a broader fan base.

4. Language – If there’s one thing that was hammered into us at Prestigious and Expensive Art School it’s “learn how to talk about your art.” Be able to write about it. Be very clear in conveying your intent. Use your words. Bryn gave a little speech that night that took 2 minutes and buh-LEW me away. Not only was she very genuine in her appreciation for her audience, Castle Fitzjohns, and her dancers, but she spoke about her work 1) eloquently and 2) in ways humans can understand. And she didn’t use the word juxtapose once. Like I said, nobody knows shit about dance (nobody really knows shit about art) so appealing to everybody is tricky. She referred to the works shown as “movement sketches” and said she is working to turn it into a fully realized multi disciplinary production “with your help.” Boom. Movement sketches?? How’s that for a simple image even the layman-est among us can fathom? It’s like, oh, so this cool thing that I watched is in preparation for a bigger, cooler thing? With other and more different types of art involved? “I would like to see that!” you might say. “Great! There’s a space to donate at the entrance, or you can go to and click “donate” at any time! Thank you so much!” she might respond.

And THAT’S how you make money and connections with no money or connections.

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