The TACA Custom Auction Gala celebrating the art funding organization’s 50th anniversary was a time to glisten and shine. And on Friday, September 8, the first black-tie gala of the 2017 fall/winter fundraising season did just that. Only it wasn’t exactly for the reason some might have predicted.
Unlike years past, when it was held entirely inside the legendary Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, the guests discovered as they drove up to the auto courtyard that the gala had taken up more real estate. A large, see-thru tent complete with overhead lights and greenery, bars and a black stage surrounded by tables and chairs had been erected in the courtyard adjacent to the august hotel. Here the cocktail reception would be held, followed by the evening’s program. As for dinner, guests would saunter into the Mansion to dine and wine.
TACA Custom Auction Gala Co-Chairs Wanda Gierhart and Dean Fearing reported that they were planning on wedding in summer 2018…Breast cancer survivor Linda Custard topped off in snow white hair reported that husband Bill Custard had teased her the year before that, for the first time, he had more hair than she did…Dallas Children’s Theater’s Robyn Flatt was thrilled about the theater’s new mega-sign lighting that took place on Wednesday, August 30. She also added that ticket sales for the annual Cabaret were going briskly…. After checking in outside the tent, guests like Carol and Don Glendenning, Wendy and Jeremy Strick, Laura and Dennis Moon, Lynn and Allan McBee, Lisa and Bill Ogle, Katherine Wynne and John Baer, Jan Barboglio, Barbara and Steve Durham, Stacie and Steve Adams and Mimi and Rich Sterling ambled on in for drinks and the evening’s festivities.
When Dallas Theater Center Associate Artistic Director Joel Ferrell called the beautiful people to start the program, the veteran high rollers discovered that things had changed from the past. Instead of having front-row tables reserved for them to raise their bid paddles, it was a first-come, first-sit situation.
Then, as the body count for the sold-out event climbed past 275, the glamorous joint started getting pretty cozy. Thankfully it wasn’t a simmering August heat wave, and the September evening’s outdoor temperature was still lingering in the upper 70’s. Still, the couple of occasionally open tent doors weren’t letting in much of a breeze. Like Ashley Wilkes, tuxedoed men in white buttoned-up shirts with ties smiled bravely, as their lady friends fanned themselves with their bid paddles like Scarlett O’Hara on the porch of Tara. It wasn’t a question of the portable A/C units not working up to snuff. Someone said there was an A/C unit trying its best in the back of the tent. But like the Titanic lifeboat count, there just weren’t enough of the little blowhards to meet the need as the festivities continued.
Joel got things started by introducing the evening’s Co-Chairs/lovebugs Wanda Gierhart and Dean Fearing. The former Mansion/current Ritz chef with headset in place kicked things off welcoming the group. But when Wanda tried to provide an added welcome, her handheld mic proved to be a silent stick. Panic on the sidelines kicked in, and event planner Randi Steinhart scrambled on stage handing Wanda another handheld mic. It proved to be suffering from the same “Silent Sam” ailment as the other mic. Giggles arose among the guests. After repeated exchanges of dead mics with similar results and pleading looks at the production table with no results, the laughter had been replaced with awkward smiles. Trooper Wanda saved the situation by simply talking into Dean’s headset.
With a working mic in hand, TACA Chair Donna Wilhelm introduced “Celebration,” a dance commissioned by TACA to celebrate TACA’s 50th anniversary and performed by Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Bruce Wood Dance, and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance. Things were heating up. Now bid paddles were fanning at full pace, as the dancers performed flawlessly. But the icy cocktails were starting to wear off, and the body-heat temperatures table-side were rising.
Instead of going straight to the live auction, Donna returned to the stage and told of her roots in funding the New Works Fund going back to her childhood as the daughter of Polish immigrants. She was followed by incoming TACA Chair Michelle Thomas, who reported, “Did you know?” about TACA. On the front row was one of TACA’s original members Katherine Bull, who could have read chapter and verse about the days of Jane Murchison (Haber), Evelyn Lambert, Virginia Nick and the ladies getting together to raise funds for a new art group — Dallas Theater Center. But there was no mention of them or the TACA roots on this night.
The paddles kept paddling the air like a metronome at presto speed to fight off the feel of perspiration.
Finally, it was time for auctioneer Louis Murad to lead the live auction. His aim, he’d said, was to haul in about $250,000. He said it was not going to be a repeat of the 2015 TACA Custom Auction Gala, when he had conducted the lackluster TACA auction in the cool Mansion Promenade. But as starting time neared, some, who knew they weren’t “players” or were starting to succumb to the heat, headed into the cool confines of the Mansion.
As Louis hopped on stage, he looked at the crowd of beauts and still felt confident. Two 21st century Austin Powers lovelies walked the stage like boxing ring girls holding signs designating the package for the crowd that was starting to look like a formally attired hot-yoga class. Flutes that had held champagne were drained. Makeup was starting to show premature signs of melting. Slender gals in gowns, who had stilettoed their way over the cobblestone courtyard, were now leaning against the tent’s walls, looking like wilted daisies. One woman at a front-row table stood. Louis asked if she was rising to bid. No, she was headed to the bar for a couple of drinks for friends. Items that had been described as “priceless,” were barely hitting the five-figure neighborhood.
Thanks to Diane and Hal Brierley, the evening’s bidding venture wasn’t a total loss, with their taking home dinner with Dean Fearing and Cowboy greats (Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston and Emmitt Smith) for $32,500. Alas, Louis’ goal of a quarter of a million bucks didn’t hit its target. Including the post-auction, shout-out for funds, the evening’s take wasn’t too much more than $100,000.
One person commented, “Too sober. Too hot. This group is ready for church.”
As crass as this comment was, it was a Reader’s Digest critique. Usually, most fundraisers have the live auction preceded by a cocktail party and a well-quenched dinner. The true experts in the live auction world know that you don’t want the guests to be “too happy” that they don’t have the day-after blues. But you do want them to be lulled into feeling the lift of the paddles is painless. Not the case here. Between the heat and the grumbling tummies, these celebrants wanted to get out of the tent and onto dinner inside the air-conditioned Mansion.
According to one TACA organizer, the thinking was that people wanted the dinner to follow the live auction, so they could settle back and linger, as opposed to hustling to the auction. They also felt that the dance performance would rally the paddles into a frenzy high.
But this POA turned into a perfect storm for Monday morning quarterbacking. Had they held the live auction in the Mansion ballroom, the heat factor would not have kicked in. Had they held the live auction after the seated dinner, there would have been a more festive lifting of the paddles. Had the auction items been curated by a true luxury team like the 2017 Art Ball’s Jennifer Karol and Rajan Patel instead of parceling some items out to out-of-state AmFund, the paddles might have waved like the flags on the Fourth of July. Had the annual farm-to-table package been part of the lineup, even the poorest of the rich crowd would have had paddled up.
Editor’s comment: As the new regime of TACA gets underway for the next 50 years, it appears to still be a project in development. But on this night the celebration of TACA’s 50th anniversary wasn’t quite the bravo production that some had hoped for. MIA were some longtime TACA supporters. According to one source, past TACA chairs had been invited to join the host committee. When one “past TACA co-chair” had received the invite, she responded, “My husband and I don’t support the arts. We’ve never been to a TACA event, so I doubt we’ve ever chaired one.”
Organizers intimated that this would be the last TACA live auction. Perhaps it’s just as well, since the 2017 TACA Custom Auction Gala went out with a whimper, and not a bang.