Aspen arts nonprofits taking fundraising galas online for the coronavirus summer

Pianist David Dyer performing online during Thunder RIver Theatre Company's ExtravaGala! on May 7.

While countless Aspen philanthropic galas and benefits have been canceled since the novel coronavirus upended in-person events this spring, arts organizations are breaking new local ground by experimenting with concepts for virtual galas.

Thunder River Theatre Co. recently hosted the first local virtual benefit, its May 7 ExtravaGala!, and dubbed it a success. Anderson Ranch Arts Center announced its Un-Gala to take place virtually July 16. And the biggest fish in Aspen’s arts nonprofit pond, the Aspen Music Festival and School, is eyeing its own online benefit for summer.

“I would absolutely recommend that any organization that normally throws an in-person gala try something digital this year,” said Thunder River executive artistic director Corey Simpson.

The Thunder River event offered a small-scale template for what an online gala might look like, with performers in tuxedoes and ball gowns — pianist David Dyer, singer Nina Gabianelli and actor Gary Daniel among them — appearing via Zoom on the company’s ThunderStream YouTube channel, which launched soon after local stay-at-home orders went into effect. ExtravaGala was free to watch, with donations encouraged but without gala staples like a live auction or competitive paddle-raise.

It worked, according to Simpson.

“Financially it was a success,” he said. “The outcome was equivalent to our best year at our gala because there was practically no cost to producing it.”

The cost of benefit events has long been a thorny issue for local nonprofits. Keeping up with the trends of increasingly lavish events has meant spending more on caterers, venue fees, rentals and decorations, cutting into the proceeds that go toward an organization’s mission.

“In some ways, it’s the best possible way to channel the money back into your mission, rather than throwing a big party,” Simpson said of the virtual gala concept.

The downside, he noted, is that local vendors who make a living off these events aren’t benefiting. To help ailing local restaurants, Thunder River promoted take-out options for those watching the gala.

It’s yet to be seen whether a virtual fundraising event for an organization like Thunder River — which operates on a roughly $250,000 annual budget — can scale up to the level of a nonprofit like the Music Fest, which runs on $17 million annually and last year raised nearly $7 million for its operating budget through donations.

Music Fest president and CEO Alan Fletcher said that loyal donors have continued giving as the nonprofit canceled its in-person 2020 season and began planning as-yet unannounced online summer programming, which is expected to include a virtual benefit.

Last summer the Music Fest’s American Feast of Music Benefit, hosted in August at Hurst Hall, included a performance by soprano Renée Fleming and raised more than $1 million, according to the Music Fest’s annual report. It was supplemented by several more benefit events the nonprofit normally hosts during summer, including its annual Opera Benefit and series of private home-hosted Artist Dinners.

“We do anticipate converting what would have been our summer benefit into some kind of virtual event,” Fletcher said last month. “That will probably be free to attend virtually and, hopefully, will lead to some increased giving.”

Anderson Ranch’s Un-Gala is a more traditionally ticketed event, with single tickets starting at $1,000 and virtual tables available for $25,000. Online attendees will receive a “bash-in-a-box” package, with surprise contents that promise to offer participatory art experiences during the curated online event and some of the booze and glamour of the traditional Aspen gala experience.

It replaces the Ranch’s Recognition Dinner, which is normally hosted at the Hotel Jerome and last year raised a record $1.5 million, with internationally renowned artists in attendance to accept Ranch honors.

Anderson Ranch has already been connecting with its community and its donors through online programming, with events like its free Virtual Art Salons and Thinker Thursdays as well as donor-exclusive happenings like this week’s National Council members’ salon.

The Ranch also moved its summer art workshops online, planning more than 40 virtual workshops for the season. Last week at a virtual event, Anderson Ranch president and CEO Peter Waanders said the Ranch has seen a fervent response to those expansive offerings and an enthusiasm for virtually connecting with the Ranch during the pandemic.

“Frankly they are selling out really quickly,” he said of the online workshops. “So we are really excited to see the response from people about experiencing the Ranch but doing it in a new way during this crisis.”

Philanthropic parties boomed in Aspen in the mid-1980s and marked a cultural shift from the resort’s ’70s-era of pure hedonism. A story on the proliferation of Aspen galas in the New York Times Style section in 1985 counted some 200 annual fundraising events and delineated the migration of the local socialite scene from “skiing and sex” to fundraising.

The conventional wisdom back then was that Aspen’s philanthropic set needed a party to write a check for the growing number of Aspen arts nonprofits and other charities.

“The no-party solicitation doesn’t work here,” Ballet/Aspen board president Lita Heller told the Times back then. “People want a party.”

That’s appeared to stay true through the decades, judging by how benefits have grown in number and in opulence, with local arts offerings expanding commensurately.

This summer, when large gala-sized gatherings are unlikely to be allowed under public health orders, will test whether today’s donors will give when a party isn’t possible and whether a virtual gala can approximate the cash boost of a gala, while the pandemic also tests the fiscal resilience of Aspen arts organizations. It could permanently reshape and cull the glutted benefit lineup.

The calendar of galas had grown so crowded in the valley that before the pandemic, Thunder River had already planned to drop its in-person summer gala this year — planning a fundraising campaign without an event, pitching it as a break from the demanding social calendar for the philanthropic community.

“That was a response to our valley having so many events and so many fundraising galas,” Simpson said. “We felt like this was the year when we stepped back from that and gave our patrons a rest.”

But once public health orders forced locals to stay home, Simpson and his board decided a virtual gala would be a welcome reason to celebrate art amid the stress and hardship of the moment.

“It was clear that, rather than just a fundraising campaign, it could be really fun to pull together local performers who were all still hungry to be creative and connect with audiences,” he said, “which is healing for us as artists and, I think, healing for our community as well.”

Though it wasn’t billed as a benefit event, 5Point Film’s “5Point Unlocked” event served as an unexpected fundraising success for the adventure film nonprofit and an example of the potential reach of creative virtual events.

The three-day online presentation — held in late April over the dates when the canceled festival would have run at the Carbondale Rec Center — included favorite short films from festivals past, new segments of adventurers in quarantine, and hosts familiar to local audiences.

It was free to watch, with donations accepted. It raised $26,000 from 1,500 donors, far beyond 5Point’s modest expectations.

“It outperformed anything I could have imagined,” executive director Regna Jones said.

The programs drew more than 20,000 views, far outstretching the limited capacity of the in-person 5Point fest. Nearly 50% of those viewers watched from outside Colorado, making “Unlocked,” Jones noted, an outreach event that connected more people to the organization than anything 5Point has done before.

“It was a testament to the idea that you can find your wings in the air,” Jones said. “If the intention is good, these online events will work.”