Postponed galas imperil more than boldface names
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Postponed galas imperil more than boldface names
Allison Eden and Gary Goldenstein sport disco-ball face masks at the opening reception party for "Studio 54: Night Magic" at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, March 11, 2020. High-profile fund-raisers are being canceled or postponed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Ruth La Ferla

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Amy Gross had been looking forward to a party that would rival the luster of the Save Venice ball last year. A lavishly costumed affair that lit up the Plaza hotel in New York, it was seeded with social royalty and party fixtures including Lauren Santo Domingo, Princess Maria Olympia of Greece and Nicky Hilton Rothschild, each descending the grand staircase in cascades of organza and lace.

“What I’ll miss is the food, the exquisite gowns and headpieces, and the beautiful people that bring so much energy and creativity to this city,” said Gross, executive director of Save Venice, which supports the restoration of Venetian art treasures.

She was lamenting the postponement of an event that brought in $1.2 million last spring and is among the latest high-profile fundraisers to be canceled or postponed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, a rupture in the rhythms of city life.

Other tent poles of the spring charity circuit soon collapsed, including the Tribeca Ball for the New York Academy of Arts (popular with the fashionable art-world clique), the Lincoln Center spring gala (Upper East Side socialites and financiers) and the Planned Parenthood gala (wealthy lefty politicos).

As bad news continued to mount, the Met Gala, the doyenne of glittering extravaganzas, announced Monday that it had been postponed indefinitely. It is unclear if any more galas, which can number six or more a day at the height of the New York social season, will take place this spring. (One of the season’s last hurrahs was the reception for the exhibition “Studio 54: Night Magic” March 11 at the Brooklyn Museum, held one day before New York banned most gatherings of more than 500 people.)

“This feels like part of a major shift,” Gross said. “If the cancellations, closures and social distancing continue, it signals to me that this is a potential reset time.”

Routinely mocked as rubber-chicken dinners, ringing with garrulous speeches and thronged with pushy, table-hopping patrons, such affairs are nonetheless the philanthropic lifeblood of the city, filling coffers that are expected to drain as the pressure to pause or shut down entirely continues to climb.

There are revenue losses, of course, but in a city that thrives on networking, costs in social and professional capital may be as significant. More alarming still is the toll on services underpinning the state’s nonprofit economy, a sector employing more than 1.4 million people, according to the New York state comptroller’s office.

“These are difficult times for everybody and especially for nonprofits,” said James Druckman, president of the board of trustees for the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, which postponed its decorator show house and president’s dinner, scheduled for April 1.

The revenue dips are serious. But they are less than catastrophic for more eminent charities, which typically begin their fundraising campaigns weeks or months in advance.

“We were actually sold out even before the invitations went out,” said Mark Wier, chief development officer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had planned to hold its Centennial gala March 31 at the Chelsea Piers. “Usually you want to be 80% sold before the formal invitations go out.”

For this event, a one-time affair produced at a cost of roughly $800,000, he said, 95% of the revenue is already in, raising about $4.2 million.

No one has reneged to date, Wier said, though pledges may go unfulfilled. “We certainly would have raised more, maybe an extra $500,000, if every gift dollar were matched by our sponsors,” he said. “Now we will never know. ”

Similarly, the majority of the 700 guests who were to attend the Kips Bay dinner had already pledged contributions or sent checks (tickets ranged from $1,250 for individuals to $12,500 or more for a table). “The cash flow will eventually be there,” Druckman said, “but we don’t know how long this crisis is going to last.”

Among those likely to suffer in the short term are smaller nonprofits like Literacy Partners, which provides free educational programs for low-income New Yorkers and immigrant families. “We are in a huge cash crunch,” said Anthony Tassi, chief executive of the organization, which has postponed its annual Evening of Readings gala.

In an ordinary year, the charity expects to see 70% of pledges and checks arrive between April and June. “But we’re already seeing a softer-than-usual response,” Tassi said, with revenues dropping 50%. “We will have to draw on our reserves to keep functioning,” he said.

Bill Sullivan, executive director of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, projects losses through June of about $300,000. “Everyone is scared right now,” he said. “They say things will get better in six to eight weeks, but I think people will still be shy about attending.”

Significant as they may be, projected declines in attendance and revenues may be less dire than the toll on the larger gala economy: the party planners, carpenters, caterers, scenic designers, electricians, waiters, bartenders and others, many of them freelance, contributing vibrancy to these affairs.

“This will affect many people who work for a living; that is the threat,” said David Patrick Columbia, who publishes The New York Social Diary, which chronicles the comings and goings of affluent and powerful New Yorkers.

“The thing that occupies my mind right now is the downstream impact these cancellations have on our gig economy,” said Bronson Van Wyck, a prominent event planner whose clients include Save Venice.

Feeling that impact directly are nonsalaried employees who don’t have a payroll tax holiday, Van Wyck pointed out. He has placed some 20 out-of-work freelance workers on a pay schedule. “But I don’t know how long I can do that,” he said.

The lockdown on gatherings is bound to take a psychic toll, reinforcing a sense of isolation and, in worst-case scenarios, imperiling the health of future events.

In the best of times, charity parties can buttress a sense of camaraderie. “So many galas are about relationships and community,” Wier of the ACLU said. “A lot of what makes these events so valuable is building those relationships and bringing new people into the fold.”

For key supporters of Literary Partners, the annual dinner is a time for network building, Tassi said, “an evening of 20 people who brought 20 people, a group of friends coming together on a night of inspiration.”

In less lofty terms, the gala is also a place to flaunt social capital, claim a place in a mutable hierarchy and, yes, fan out one’s plumage. “People go to see and be seen,” Druckman of Kips Bay said, stressing the latter. “In an organization that represents the design industry, people certainly like to look their best.”

Of course, the decision to entertain or attend a gala can waver in the face of a grinding pandemic. “If we go into a recession that lasts for six or 18 months, then we will be into a whole other emotional state,” Van Wyck said. “When people are hurting, it’s not a good look to be celebrating.”

Without the stimulus of a spring gala season, organizers fret that the philanthropic drive may well dissipate or recede entirely. “Luncheons and galas create a lot of visibility for charities,” said Jean Shafiroff, a philanthropist whose charitable causes include the Southampton Hospital, the Couture Council and the French Heritage Society. “Without that visibility, people forget about that charity.”

There are other, more subtle concerns. “What will be the toll on people’s psyches?” said Louise Grunwald, a board member of the New York Public Library. “I’m content reading a book. I haven’t gotten to the point of cabin fever yet, but it may come to that.”

Lizzie Asher, a chairwoman of the Young Friends of Save Venice and the Frick Museum’s Young Fellows Ball, a high point of the social season that draws a buoyant under-40 crowd, finds the pause more than disconcerting.

“We are in a reality nobody could have conceived of,” Asher said. “It’s really turned things inside out, like living in a sci-fi novel.”

She is keeping her chin up, just the same. “There is a beautiful energy during the social season, when New York comes alive,” she added. “We’re not going to go have that now. It might just be that we will have to hibernate a little bit longer.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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