Displaced by Sandy, New York Nonprofits Rework Major Fund-Raisers at New Venues

By Anna Sekula December 17, 2012, 6:12 PM EST

Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/BizBash

Keep A Child Alive's Black Ball Redux Whitney Museum of American Art's Gala & Studio Party
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When Hurricane Sandy barreled into New York, it left many canceled or postponed events in its wake. The situation posed a big problem for marketers, vendors, and venues, but the crisis particularly hit the nonprofit community, where calling off big benefits, planned at least a year in advance, would leave the organizations without the funds needed to support their programs. Two of the city's most influential benefits—the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual gala and Keep a Child Alive's Black Ball—were not only forced to reschedule, but also lost their venues in the process. That meant the planners had less than six weeks to redesign, rework, and rethink their events.

“While we could have easily cancelled this night and said it was a bit too difficult to reorganize, it just couldn't have happened,” said Keep a Child Alive's co-founder, Alicia Keys, when she addressed the crowd at the Apollo Theater on December 6. “With all that has happened right here at home, that was never an option for us. It would have been disastrous for the children and families that count on Keep a Child Alive for their survival.”

For the nonprofit's creative director, Earle Sebastian, who led the planning and production team, “it was a big scramble” to find a venue on short notice on a date that was available for Keys, host Whoopi Goldberg, honorees Angélique Kidjo and Oprah Winfrey, and the night's performers. Just as difficult was reconfiguring the decor, which was built for the 12,000-square-foot Hammerstein Ballroom. “We tried to fit what we had designed into a number of venues and couldn't quite make it work. Then the Apollo came along, and with its history, it just made sense,” Sebastian said. “We normally have an incredible dining experience, but that was not necessarily going to work in this environment. So this is an interpretation of what we know as the Black Ball.”

The banquet format of previous years was replaced by a theater-style setting and heavy passed hors d'oeuvres; installations intended for a large reception space were scaled down to fit the narrow area available inside the Apollo; and other imagery was placed on video screens at the entrance. “In all truth, it was a little nerve-racking trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Sebastian said.

The organizers of the Whitney gala faced a similarly daunting task of revising plans for their fund-raiser, an event cancelled just two days before it was scheduled to take place. The biggest issue for Gina Rogak, the museum's director of special events, wasn't just losing Pier 57 as its venue, but also what would have been a key part of the gala's look and feel. Originally planned for October 30, the benefit would have coincided with a two-week public launch promotion at the same site from its sponsor Microsoft, an installation that Rogak's team and producer David Stark had spent two months working into the gala's decor.

Once the decision was made to reschedule, the planning team had to quickly figure out its options. “We could not afford to go back to the pier,” said Rogak. “At that point, we had lost a significant amount of money, and although many things could be repurposed, we still would have been left without the Microsoft installation.” The museum's Upper East Side home was the best available option, but the relocation required the cooperation of the entire museum—from the curators and exhibition management to the porters, graphic design team, and facilities staff.

The gala on December 11 took over the fifth-floor gallery and the tented sculpture court. The presentation for honoree Sondra Gilman Gonzalez-Falla was set up in the lower-level gallery, coat check was housed in the loading dock, and some furniture was packed into a truck and parked off-site for the night. And for elegant, but relatively inexpensive decor, Rogak worked with Stark to illustrate urban street scenes and shapes using painter's tape on the bare walls. “Our director Adam Weinberg felt it was a very New York moment,” said Rogak, adding that the concept was to reinforce how the event supports the local arts community. The museum also donated a portion of the funds raised from the event to the New York Foundation for the Arts Emergency Relief Fund.

Ultimately, the fund-raisers were successful: Keep a Child Alive's Black Ball Redux raised more than $2.9 million, while the Whitney gala raised more than $2.7 million. And despite the last-minute planning, Sebastian was excited by the opportunity to try out a new format, and Rogak said guests felt the gala was more meaningful.

“It will definitely go down in the annals of history for me,” Rogak said. “At the end of the day, I really believe it had the best possible ending—we couldn't have had a better gala if we did it at the pier.”

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