Arts groups got creative about fundraising during COVID, and here’s why that’s likely to stay

Early in the Northwest African American Museum’s virtual 2021 Unity Benefit, vocalist Samara Reign delivers a powerful rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun / Let us march on ’til victory is won,” Reign sings to the camera.

Despite its challenges, the pandemic has not stopped NAAM from securing victories. After a year full of virtual and outdoor programs, including a nine-day Juneteenth Week celebration and monthly virtual field trips to Black-owned businesses, October’s benefit raised $784,000, exceeding NAAM’s fundraising goal and well surpassing the event’s usual tally of about $300,000.

Stuck behind closed doors for much of the last two years, arts organizations used to draw viewers into their galleries and auditoriums have been tasked with instead bringing their art to viewers, all while reminding viewers their craft is worth financially supporting. To remain afloat, Seattle organizations held virtual fundraisers, asked audiences to be sponsors or members and launched streaming platforms.

Seattle’s creators had to get creative; now, many organizations say their innovative funding models are here to stay.

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Seattle’s thriving and vital arts-and-culture community has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing certain about the future is change. The Seattle Times takes an in-depth look at the sector’s recovery in 2022 with support from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. We will explore how both individuals and institutions are doing in the wake of the pandemic; track where relief money is going; and look at promising solutions to challenges facing our arts community. We invite you to join the conversation. Send your stories, comments, tips and suggestions to artsrecovery@seattletimes.com.

NAAM found that virtual fundraising, while not ideal, does have its advantages — it can have a far greater reach. LaNesha DeBardelaben, the museum’s executive director, said although the 2021 Unity Benefit only had 147 viewers (compared to in-person fundraisers than accommodated about 300 people), that number included people from across the region and the country.

Another positive of NAAM’s virtual benefit is the window for giving stays open longer. At in-person benefits, DeBardelaben said, NAAM received donations at the time of the event, typically in the form of a check. But virtual fundraising has allowed donors to give both on the day of the event and leading up to it.

Virtual programming has cons, too. “A virtual experience cannot replace the heartfelt and heart-touching inspiration that comes from being face-to-face with Black arts,” DeBardelaben said.

NAAM is considering both returning to in-person fundraisers and continuing virtual ones, so as to not lose the accessibility and new relationships formed remotely during the pandemic. Whether NAAM will emphasize in-person or virtual programming more going forward has yet to be decided, DeBardelaben said.

“We’re just exploring the options right now and looking forward to landing on what will be best for our regional community, for our mission and for the opportunity for those to support this museum in ways that this museum needs to be supported financially,” she said.

Also during the pandemic, NAAM created a traveling gospel choir, the African American Cultural Ensemble. For each performance, ACE requires a booking fee, which provides an opportunity for a new revenue stream for the museum, DeBardelaben said. As far as she knows, NAAM is the first African American museum to have its own gospel choir.

Patrons become sponsors

Pandemic-motivated innovation has also created opportunities at Seattle’s Coriolis Dance, where anyone can now sponsor rehearsals and performances. Madeleine Gregor, associate artistic director, said Coriolis started its sponsorship model in 2021 for its first show since the beginning of the pandemic, which was also one of the first times Coriolis tied a fundraising campaign to a specific program.

Through Coriolis’ PayPal page, donors can choose a tier of sponsorship, whether an hour of a rehearsal, a full rehearsal, a week of rehearsals, one performance or all performances. They can also choose a specific dancer to sponsor, or choose to sponsor all dancers, in which case the funds will be divided up among them.

Coriolis drew inspiration from industry peers for its sponsorship model, including Ate9 Dance Company in Los Angeles. Gregor wanted to replicate the transparency after she donated to Ate9 herself.

“You truly know exactly the kind of organization you’re funding through this model, as well as how big of an impact you actually make,” she said. “Sometimes when you donate, it can be hard to feel like what you’re giving truly matters to that organization, but it is our mission to make sure that people do know … the difference each and every dollar makes.”

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Last year, 42 individual donations amounting to $5,272 provided stipends for a cast of five dancers, costumes, a director of photography, choreographers, a composer and props and materials, Gregor said.

“It makes people feel connected to the work that they’re supporting in a new and direct way,” Gregor said. “Not only are they empowering us, but they can feel empowered in how they are supporting the artists through the sponsorship structure, which is why we’ve continued it since then.”

Gregor said Coriolis also has a Patreon, a platform where members can pay monthly for content, which has helped the company survive the pandemic with a reliable income.

Launching a streaming platform

Across Lake Washington from Coriolis and NAAM, Tasveer — a Bellevue-based organization seeking to inspire social change through film, art and storytelling of the South Asian diaspora — has also hosted virtual galas, launched a sponsorship model and a membership option for its audience. Tasveer’s annual memberships are available in five different tiers, each with different prices and perks, while sponsorship opportunities are available for its film festival, gala and other programs.

Rita Meher, Tasveer co-founder and executive director, said Tasveer is considering hosting both in-person and virtual events in the future after successful 2021 programming. When Tasveer’s staff was forced to go virtual for its annual South Asian Film Festival, they decided they might as well go big. The normally 10-day festival became a two-week affair combining seven South Asian film festivals from across North America, Meher said. The Coalition of South Asian Film Festivals garnered 45,000 views from people in 18 countries, 53 states/provinces and 125 cities.

But perhaps Tasveer’s most innovative response to the pandemic is TasveerTV (tasveer.org), a subscription-based online streaming platform dedicated to South Asian independent films, that can be accessed through Roku and Amazon Fire TV.

TasveerTV, which will have fully launched by the end of April, includes fiction features, documentaries and short films, with a focus on representation and social justice. It is the only US-based film-streaming platform dedicated to South Asian independent and social justice films and focused on the global diaspora, development manager Ariel Brownstein said.

The channel could provide an extra revenue source for Tasveer, but Brownstein said the main motivations for its creation were having more distribution options, especially paid ones, for filmmakers in Tasveer’s circle, as well as continued engagement of people all over the world.

Both the membership program and TasveerTV are young programs, but Tasveer anticipates growth in the next couple of years, Brownstein said. Tasveer, as well as NAAM and Coriolis, is certain that these innovative programs will not just guide its organization through these trying times but will propel it forward long after the pandemic’s end.

“Rita has big dreams to increase funding and distribution connections for filmmakers more and more,” Brownstein said. “And Tasveer will thrive as more and more filmmakers are supported — the rising tide lifts all boats.”

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

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