Last year, Tim Griffin, the executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen, a nonprofit art space in New York, decided to depart from his organization’s normal fundraising structure. Instead of holding two benefits a year to cover much of the organization’s roughly $2.6 million annual budget—an auction in November and a gala in April—he decided to focus all his energy on only one.

“We felt artists were having too much asked of them, and that there were too many benefit art auctions,” he says. “We decided to replace that income by putting more weight on the gala.”

Now though, the Kitchen’s spring benefit, which was supposed to take place in April and honor singer Debbie Harry and artist Cindy Sherman, is delayed at least until September.  “As soon as you take away half of our fiscal year calendar, you have an outsize impact on our season,” Griffin says. “It’s not really clear how within this fiscal year we’re going to recover that at all.” He estimates that postponing the gala will result in a loss of about $500,000.

Griffin’s organization has joined dozens of cultural institutions in New York that have been forced, with dizzying speed, to reckon with the effects of the new coronavirus. Not only have they had to close their doors to paying visitors—an act that under normal circumstances would dent their already fragile finances—now they also have to cancel their spring fundraisers.

“The coronavirus outbreak will have a far-reaching and long-lasting financial impact on all cultural organizations,” says Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “[Their] revenue streams—from admissions, group visits, events, rentals, and more—have essentially halted,” she says. “The impact on contributions won’t be pretty, either.”

Cataclysmic Loss
Galas might sound frivolous to outside observers who see party pictures of laughing patrons in front of untouched plates of catered food, but to the organizations themselves, they’re absolutely critical. And not only because of the funds raised that night.

“It’s categorically our largest fundraiser of the year, providing close to seven figures,” says Gabriela Palmieri, an independent art adviser and a trustee of El Museo del Barrio, which canceled its May gala. “We don’t have the coffers that other nonprofits have. This is cataclysmic.”

The problem, she continues, isn’t just the money that’s lost from table purchases. “Then you have the bidding on objects during the auction, and then you have emotional pledges,” she says. “Maybe they come from someone who was a guest at a table. Maybe it comes from someone who didn’t win something at auction but still wants to give. This is their chance to say here’s another few tens of thousands of dollars.”

Some institutions have emergency funds built in. Griffin says the Kitchen has cash on hand to continue its operations for the foreseeable future. Others have boards that are working to bolster their organizations’ finances. “My incredible board has agreed to fulfill their pledges” for the Artists Ball, Pasternak says. “This is what a healthy board does.”

But not every institution is so lucky, particularly if it scheduled an event months away in late April or May. “You had tickets or tables that were committed,” Palmieri says, “but people buy or pay for their tables a few weeks in advance.” Some people sent in checks in January, she continues, “but the majority pay in March or April. So the fact that El Museo made the decision two weeks ago to cancel means that supporters say, ‘OK, I’ll buy tickets, but in October’ or whenever they reschedule the date.”

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