Columbian Ball Reaches Fund-Raising Goals Despite Lower Attendance

The Museum of Science and Industry went for a sophisticated dinner-party feel at this year's Columbian Ball, which served as a dual fund-raiser and birthday party.

By Jenny Berg October 7, 2008, 8:00 AM EDT

Columbian Ball at the Museum of Science and Industry

Photo: JB Spector/Museum of Science and Industry

Museum of Science and Industry's Columbian Ball
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On Saturday night, the Museum of Science and Industry's annual Columbian Ball (which we ranked among our top benefits in Chicago's Top 100 Events list) raked in more than $1.6 million dollars for the museum, despite the nation's current financial climate. Denise Hicks, the museum's manager of campaign special events, planned the ball dubbed “Unbelievable! 75 Years of Inspiration” in honor of the museum's 75th anniversary.

Though Hicks said that the state of the economy made finding sponsors “a little more challenging” than usual this year, the event ultimately landed principal sponsorships from companies such as Allstate, BP, and United Airlines. “What helped the most [with attracting sponsors] is who the co-chairs were,” Hicks said. ”[Our co-chairs] are well-known in the community and the city, and their involvement made people want to be a part of this event.” (This year's co-chairs included Max and Jim Farrell and Mayor Richard Daley and his wife, Maggie.)

Another sign of the times was this year's 650-guest attendance, which marked a decline from the more than 800 attendees at last year's ball. According to Hicks, black-tie fund-raisers throughout the city are seeing fewer guests as people become more selective about the events they support, especially in the benefit-heavy months of September and October. Those who do come, come “because they love the museum,” Hicks said, adding that the smaller guest list didn't stop the event from achieving its financial goal.

That goal was helped along by the evening's live auction during dessert with TV journalist Bill Kurtis as M.C. Guests raised their paddles for prizes such as tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show or a week in a Tuscan villa, and the auction ultimately raised $179,000.

Finances aside, Hicks said that decor was a major focus of the planning process, which began last January. Heffernan Morgan's John Hensel worked closely with decor chair Max Farrell to create the evening's look. “Max wanted the dinner to feel intimate and almost residential, even though we had about 60 tables,” Hensel said. Aiming for an “understated, elegant sparkle“ in the dinner room, Hensel dressed tables with white rose and amaryllis centerpieces, white linen napkins, and glass candle holders. And in an effort to “bring some of the museum's exterior architecture inside," Hensel decorated the room with large fabric panels printed with photos of the columns that line the museum's facade.

Although the ball follows the same format each year, the co-chairs wanted to do something unexpected for the 75th anniversary this year. To that end, they hired magician Bob Higa to riff off the ball's “Unbelievable" theme with a series of illusions during dinner, which culminated in a show of confetti and streamers. Other birthday-inspired touches included a dessert parade, during which 11 waiters marched down the aisles with sparkler-topped desserts.

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