Amp up the potential of a popular fundraising model.
Leverage auctions and tag sales with an online platform, or embed them in a show.
Reaching beyond the local community; bringing shoppers unfamiliar with a theatre into its orbit.
Tracking how many curious shoppers are converted into ongoing patrons of the theatre.
Sustained communication with auction trawlers.
The prevailing hunch about auctions and tag sales is that they are aimed at generating revenue. Generally, they are. But when Philadelphia’s Gas & Electric Arts tacked on a tag sale to Cabinet of Wonders: An Impossible History, a Kira Obolensky commission produced in 2009, the company was more focused on extending the audience’s experience of the world of the play beyond the play itself—and on appealing to and connecting with new theatregoers.
The opening scene of Cabinet of Wonders sees characters Christina and Leopold—in imminent danger of losing their grand familial home—tagging items for an estate sale. Filling a warehouse with items brought in by furniture and antiques dealers—all of which were available for pre- and post-performance sale—Gas & Electric had found a way to evoke the detritus of foreclosure with startling immediacy.
“A visual feast,” recalls Lisa Jo Epstein, Gas & Electric’s artistic director, with excitement. “You walked down these crumbling concrete stairs that opened out into 5,000 square feet of stuff. Antiques, collectibles, furniture, lamps, and a 1960s Philco stereo that was actually playing music.”
“See a play and shop,” exclaimed a feature on the show in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Suburbanites who had never been to a Gas & Electric show heard about the tag sale, and came to see Cabinet of Wonders. Allowing new ticket buyers to connect in tactile ways, purchasing items they were about to see the characters lose, heightened their investment.
Incorporating this sort of event artistically into a show is savvy from a financial perspective as well. Commissions from the antique and furniture dealers on items sold, which included lamps the lighting designer had rigged to illuminate the show, substantially offset Gas & Electric’s production costs. And the timing ensured that potential supporters were reached at the moment they were most grateful for the company’s work. Patrons feel a greater connection to a theatre company on an evening in May, as the applause dies down post-performance, than months later in mid-December, when charities combatting hunger and homelessness are competing for those same dollars in an audience member’s pocket.
When auctions are held as stand-alone fundraisers, online resources can broaden their reach. New York City-based director Meghan Finn is something of an auction impresario. She has a sideline in development consulting, and in 2011 coordinated silent auctions to coincide with benefits for the Bushwick Starr, Elevator Repair Service and the Civilians.
Each of these auctions exceeded goals. Finn extols the virtues of BiddingForGood.com, a web-based auction platform well suited for small and mid-size theatres. (One theatre, Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE, even made the site’s “10 Auctions that Rocked 2012” list.) BiddingForGood generates interest in items early and lets bidders participate remotely during the benefit. The highest bid online becomes the lowest bid at the event, so it helps drive prices up.
In Finn’s experience, bids can come from all over the country. “Bidders don’t have to care about the organization,” Finn explains. “They just have to want something your company is offering.” The closing bid on a pair of donated tickets to see Justin Bieber at Madison Square Garden came to Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr from a man who had been bidding for a week from a computer in the Chicago area. This man had no connection to the Starr. His $2,000 contribution was commanded by a rendezvous of supply and demand in the digital marketplace.
Still, what if the Chi-Town bidder were encouraged to go a step further and incorporate a trip to Bushwick into his Bieber weekend? That’s the kind of challenge Carissa Norman has been thinking about for the past few years as manager of Alabama Shakespeare Festival‘s armchair auction.
ASF’s annual auction, which also uses BiddingForGood, attracts attention from all over the southeastern U.S. Typically, online bidders are Floridians, Georgians, or Mississippians who might travel now and again to one of the theatre’s rep weekends, where one can see three shows over as many days. But sometimes people who have no relationship to theatre bid as well. “When they bid, it helps us capture information,” Norman relates. Soon after the auction these potential new patrons will get an e-mail from ASF, thanking them for their support during the auction, and asking them if they’d like to come out and see the art they have supported. While Norman hasn’t been tracking hard numbers, she believes the auction has brought curious bidders to ASF.
Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre has been running auctions for a long time. Rebekah Sassi, director of institution advancement, explains that auctions are labor-intensive but “hold a great place in people’s hearts. It isn’t about tax-deductability, it’s about, ‘Can I enjoy a dinner out?'” According to Sassi, on average, half of Walnut Street’s auction attendees have no previous relationship with the theatre. She speaks of the auction “as a good way to attract the friends-of-friends.”
Here, Sassi echoes Finn, who is emphatic about the importance of packaging items with care and creating experiences that are unique, exciting and hard to easily monetize. An auction, much like a play, is predicated on creating a rapport with the spectator/customer that defies easy quantification. Experiential items, agree Finn and Sassi, hold particular allure for bidders.
In assembling packages for her auctions, Finn combines a strategy of personal asks—say, for the donation of a weekend at a vacation home owned by a member of the board—with cold asks, like dinner at a restaurant near the vacation home. In amassing items and experiences for its auction, Walnut Street, likewise, goes into cold-call mode to forge new alliances, but “the colder the ask is,” Sassi coaches, “the more tied to mission you have to be.” Walnut’s auction is always oriented around its education programs, which have brought anti-bullying and anti-suicide outreach to Philadelphia schools.
When the decade-old Woodshed Collective conducted a tag sale at the close of its run of The Tenant, the New York company also emphasized its mission: to present its installation theatre free of charge to the public. The collective is constantly looking for fundraising methods that support this model yet stay true to the spirit of the work.
Woodshed’s members considered that many components of the complicated and gorgeous Tenant set were art objects in their own right. Why not sell them off? During the two-day sale after the production closed, most set pieces were snapped up by eager buyers.
Jocelyn Kuritsky, a Woodshed founding member, explains it like this: “With theatre, people often say they don’t know what they’re paying for.” But if they take away something from the show—a lamp, a rug, an antique typewriter—then that is tangibly no longer the case. “The actual event will always be free,” Kuritsky adamantly insists of Woodshed’s productions. “But you can take a piece of it and pay for it.” And in so doing, honor the value of every item and person involved in the show, and strengthen the bond between theatre and audience.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens, N.Y.