In May, On the Boards (OtB) threw what I thought was the best gala of 2020. Called Virtually Spectacular: Sensory Perception, the gala replaced the contemporary performance venue's annual fundraiser, Spectacle Spectacular, which is usually a fancy dinner for 150 of Seattle's best arts patrons. Forced into the virtual world because of the pandemic, On the Boards brought their reliable flair to the digital event: Betty Wetter was a clutch host, Justin Vivian Bond prolapsed a grapefruit, and, most importantly, the world-class venue raised over $80,000. The successful fundraiser gave me the hope I needed to believe that Seattle's arts scenes could make it through 2020, a year with too many tragedies to count.
This year, On the Boards has continued to promote and support artists, somehow, while also managing to teach strangers how to talk to each other during a pandemic, setting up a game show inside their theater, and expanding their already global reach. (On the Boards told me that in 2019, OntheBoards.TV had about six viewers from Istanbul. In 2020, that number jumped to over 6,000—just in Istanbul! It's a global organization, baby!)
As we wrap up 2020, I asked On the Boards' Executive Director Betsey Brock to chat with me about their fundraising success. She agreed, and we ended up having a delightful and long conversation. Unfortunately, it was too long to reproduce here in full, but read on for Brock's thoughts on theater, entropy, and how maybe, just maybe, we'll see the best season-opening parties this city has ever seen come Fall 2021.
We pruned this interview for clarity and conciseness.
I hate to ask you to revisit this month, but can you describe where your head was at in March when all the shit hit the fan?
BETSEY BROCK: In March and April, we were like, "Okay, we're going to make decisions on a 72-hour plan. We'll cancel things three days in advance." And then we were like, "Okay, two weeks out. Two weeks out, we'll cancel things." By the second week of April, we were like, "Okay, we're not going to do anything until July." We thought things would be better by July.
By the time we presented Virtually Spectacular in May, we were beginning to grasp the lack of an expiration date on this era that we're in.
I commend Rachel Cook, our artistic director, and our team for being like, "Okay, we can't do things like we've done before. But we can do a drive-in in our parking lot. And do this show that takes place over the telephone, and then do the second part of it which is for two people."
And when you're doing shows over the telephone or with two people, fundraisers like Virtually Spectacular or The Future Is Zero become increasingly important because there's no significant ticket revenue attached to doing a show for two people.
The fundraisers that you all did this year really uplifted my spirits. The first one in May, Virtually Spectacular, made me feel like, "Okay, maybe we can make this work"—and that was during a time that was really bleak.
That was such a joyful event. We really weren't sure if it was gonna work or how it would be received. What it took the place of was a dinner that we've had for 15 years, I guess, called Spectacle Spectacular—a dinner that's for 150 people, a gala dinner.
But with Virtually Spectacular, we really had no idea if it was going to work or not. What was amazing about it is Spectacle Spectacular is 150 people, cuz that's all we can fit. But with Virtually Spectacular, we had 400 donors and just another couple hundred who were tuning in. So the audience was much bigger, and everything wasn't hinged on a couple people raising the paddle at $30,000. It was gifts that were $25 and $50. There were a lot more people donating at lower levels, which, you know, maybe it's more democratic. It allows more people to feel invested in the art.
Are you worried that our COVID-19 restrictions are training new patterns in people, that the pandemic will train people not to go to places like museums and movie theaters and IRL theaters?
Well, I think that's something we were fighting long before the pandemic. It's not like theater or performance spaces are in competition with each other. We're in competition with entropy. We're in competition with Netflix and exhaustion. It seems like we're going to continue fighting this same battle—but I also think the ways that artists are working are changing too.
That idea of 300 people facing in one direction, watching a thing happening, where the curtains open—I mean, of course, that's still going to happen sometimes, but I think a lot of the interesting artists that [Artistic Director] Rachel [Cook] is talking to right now are really thinking about new modes of performance. That pairs with audience members' needs to experience things that are smaller scale, where audience members can control their experiences more.
When you look into next year, are you considering a hybrid model? Or are you not even making projections because everything is so up in the air? What's the timeline?
We're just talking about that now. This week, I feel like in every meeting someone has said, "...but the vaccine?" And I don't think we can make plans based on that. Rachel and I have been talking about just artists that we're interested in working with or artists who we're already committed to working with and furthering their projects. We're trying to say: How do we invest in this artist or these projects, regardless of what we can sell tickets to or invite an audience to experience live. Could it be digital? Could it be installation-based? Does it have to be a crowd? What are the options?
Since this is a temperature check coming at the end of the year, what do you want audiences and artists to know about how the organization is doing?
I want to say something positive, Chase.
I know! That's the hard thing!
It's been a dark year, and I'm a pretty positive person. But I want people to know that none of this happens for free. And if you want Seattle to continue to be a place where art happens, you actually have to donate. You have to give money. You have to show up—and if showing up means you're turning on a performance or a fundraiser or an artist talk while you're cooking dinner, that's cool! We're not going to sell tickets in the same way, and I don't know if we ever will again. The fundraising landscape has changed. It's important that our local audiences and corporations actually invest in arts organizations. It's one of the things that makes Seattle an okay place to live.
It's been really challenging not just financially, but not being connected to our audience and hanging out in the lobby. When we're putting stuff out there, it means the world for people to actually show up for it, and to buy tickets, and to let us know that they actually watched. I miss the On the Boards lobby so much. I can't even fucking wait to be in not even my lobby, but anybody's lobby. I miss the idea of, "Hey! We're all going to experience something together, and we're all gonna come out on the other side different people, all together." I really miss it.
Maybe people will flood the lobbies once we're all able to come back together.
Totally. I imagine... maybe it's Fall 2021?
That's my estimate, too.
I just can imagine there will be a wave of the best season-opening parties this city has ever seen—in performance spaces, in museums, in galleries... I'm really looking forward to that.
This Slog post is part of State of the Arts, a new series that looks at the ways Seattle's arts communities are dealing with our darkest winter. Check Slog daily for fresh updates.