The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden took some flak last fall when it held its 40thanniversary gala in New York and not in Washington. But the glitzy fundraiser was so successful that the museum has decided to make it an annual event.
“It was a great moment for the Hirshhorn in terms of putting [it] at the front and center of the art world,” said the museum’s director, Melissa Chiu. “It makes sense for us to build on that moment, and not walk away from it.”
The second New York gala will be Nov. 3 at a site to be determined, officials said. The museum, however, isn’t giving up on raising money in Washington. After skipping this year, the Hirshhorn plans to host a spring gala here April 28, followed by a November party in New York.
“We have the profile and awareness here in D.C.,” Chiu said. “To expand the support base here in D.C. is one of our goals.”
November’s gala at 4 World Trade Center was the most successful fundraiser in the museum’s history. But it was also costly. Although donations topped $1.5 million, the museum spent $551,634 — more than a third of the total — to wine, dine and entertain its 399 guests. The museum’s cost per person was $1,382.
“Yes, there was a great cost, but there was a much greater yield,” Chiu said. “We were happy with $1 million . . . that was directed to exhibitions and programs at the museum.”
The New York gala coincided with the end of Chiu’s first year at the Hirshhorn, which for years had struggled through leadership changes and programming failures, including the cancellation of plans for a seasonal inflatable structure known as the Bubble.
Six months after Chiu’s arrival, the Hirshhorn hosted a gala at the museum in connection with the Shirin Neshat exhibition, the first show under her leadership. Far less fancy, that event drew 256 guests and raised $273,250. After deducting $140,328 in expenses — or $548 a person — the museum cleared $132,922.
“That event was about saying, ‘Hey, we’re back, we’re getting in the game,’ ” said Dan Sallick, the museum board chairman.
Next year’s D.C. spring gala will celebrate “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” an exhibition of the Japanese artist’s immersive installations that opens in February. Sallick said that gala would be much larger than the Neshat party, with the same emphasis on building relationships. “The engagement needs to be the same, even if the dollars aren’t the same,” he said.
Sallick said the plan to host two gala fundraisers each year is part of a larger development effort to stabilize and grow the museum, including increasing annual donations and expanding the board.
“It’s an investment in relationships,” said Sallick, who added that the New York guest list last year went well beyond the city limits. “It isn’t just New York, it’s the international art world. Everyone’s there for the auctions. The art world is global, but there are convenings. It’s smart for us to have a presence there.”
Other regional and international museums, especially those focused on modern and contemporary art, have tapped into New York’s resources. Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., has hosted an annual New York event since 2005, and London’s Tate Modern regularly hosts events there. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston hosted a 65th-anniversary auction in Manhattan in 2014, in addition to an auction and gala in Texas.
Galas generate excitement and visibility, but they also demand a great deal from staff, which is sometimes overlooked. BoardSource, a Washington-based national organization focused on strengthening board leadership, released a report in 2009 titled “Breaking the Gala Addiction” to help organizations analyze the real costs and benefits of hosting such events.
“We encourage organizations to look at fundraising strategies holistically,” said Anne Wallestad, BoardSource’s president and chief executive. “What are you able to do to cultivate relationships long term? What is the stewardship role that an event can play? There can be a lot of ways they pay off that are not always obvious.”