By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Sunday at 4 p.m., 673 hopefuls sat in folding chairs throughout the Torpedo Factory and simultaneously held their breath. They all had the same thought passing through their minds – who will it be?
A name appeared on the screens, and all but one patron relaxed. Melissa Shropshire, however, had about eight seconds to call out, “350!” thus claiming the first piece of artwork in the Art League’s 2018 Patrons’ Show.
The Patrons’ Show has been the Art League’s biggest fundraiser for 50 years. Suzanne Bethel, the organization’s executive director, said the event this year raised $174,000 — making it the most successful show yet.
Art League artists, Art League teaching faculty and Torpedo Factory artists donated 700 pieces of art to the event, their works ranging from paintings to photography to sculptures. Each of the ticketholders took home one of the donated art pieces; who got what, however, depended almost entirely on luck.
Each year, the Patrons’ Show takes place as a raffle. Ticketholders pay to participate – the ticket price is now $225 — then spend the weeks leading up to the event studying and ranking the donated works in the Art League’s gallery.
The night of the show, names are called randomly, and patrons make their selections, dwindling the collection piece by piece and devastating fellow attendees.
“For some people that come to the event, this is the only cultural event they do all year,” Bethel said. “There’s that opportunity to understand a different kind of cultural consumer, someone who comes because they like the game aspect of it, they like that it’s a raffle, they like the chance of it.”
Cheryl Palting, a patron who has attended the show for the past three years, said she enjoys its competitive aspect.
“I think the best part is, as you’re watching the paintings getting claimed, every time someone else claims something that you didn’t necessarily like, you just get like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, take those, I don’t care about those,’” she said.
Ranking strategies vary from patron to patron as they form their lists. Some are vocal about their preferences, while others are secretive. Some make their lists virtually through a new app. Others are set in their tried and true, pen and paper techniques. Some rank all of the artwork, and still others take their chances and just rank their favorites.
“Most of the time I think I’ve gotten whatever’s in my top 20 at least,” Palting said, “but my sister last year was called towards the end, but she’s, like, super type A so she ranked everything. She’s crazy.”
No matter how meticulous, secretive or strategic about his or her list a patron may be, it is completely random whether they will be the first or the 673rd person to be called.
“What’s fun about it is the magic thinking that goes into, ‘That’s the piece I’m going to win.’ Well, you or one of your 600 friends might walk away with that piece,” Bethel said. “It’s a blast. It’s exhausting, but it’s a blast.”
Bethel said she’s been asked whether people get disappointed “once the best 10 pieces are claimed.” She argued that because taste varies, no two people’s favorite 10 were the same.
“Taste, how people see things, what people enjoy, what speaks to them, it’s wildly different,” she said. “What goes in the first round, it’s never what you would call. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Leading up to the show, the Art League’s gallery at Torpedo Factory was host to a cacophony of contrasting artwork. Serene still life paintings hung inches from bold abstract prints, while colorful, flamboyant cat sculptures posed next to black and white graphite drawings.
“In a more traditional gallery setting, how you present your work, how it’s placed, the space surrounding it, what’s next to it, those are incredibly important decisions that are made as you curate through the gallery. In this show, you just throw that out the window,” Bethel said. “The Patrons’ Show, it’s its own artwork. It is a public art project.”
Because of the show’s abnormal setup and experimental nature, some artists donated adventurous pieces they might not have submitted to a more traditional show, like a chair shaped like mouth or a painting of a crying green baby on a sparkling blue background.
“This one piece might not be your style, but this next one is the best piece you’ve ever seen,” Gallery Director Whitney Staiger said. “I think that’s really the kind of nice thing about it. Seeing people and seeing what they’re picking and seeing what they’re figuring out that they like that they never knew they liked.”
Palting said she was drawn to bold colors and unusual concepts. Another patron, Julie Flanagan, said she and her husband gravitated towards art that touched their personal lives, such as landscapes reminiscent of places they’ve traveled or portraits that reminded them of a grandchild.
Flanagan was also a contributing artist in the show and said she wanted something she knew she couldn’t create herself.
“I like to choose things that I could never do myself, that I will hang on my wall and admire the craftsmanship and the talent of that medium and that artist,” she said.
Flanagan said she and her husband were new to Alexandria and looking forward to the social aspect of the event.
“I want to make friends and bond with people in the community we’ve just immersed ourselves in, because we need to, and this is the perfect way to do it,” Flanagan said. “This is the social event of the season.”
Bethel said the show has always had a block party vibe to it, with many of the show’s patrons coming back year after year. She said several attendees told her they missed socializing with fellow patrons as they waited in line for tickets overnight before sales went digital.
“We’ve had people that have met on line, gotten married and come back with their kids, so we have second generation attendees,” Bethel said.
Staiger is a second-generation organizer of the event, having taken on the role of gallery director from her mother.
“My favorite part is seeing people that I’ve seen year after year coming back and being excited,” Staiger said. “We’ve seen everything from whole families coming to people coming from out of town. We see people come and say, ‘Now we have babies.’ It’s really kind of fun that it can be that interactive.”
Bethel said the event has evolved exponentially since its inaugural show in 1968. What began as a “rent party” with fewer than 100 tickets sold at $25 a piece has since grown into a fundraiser that supports the Art League’s educational programming, exhibits and community outreach programs.
“It’s our largest fundraiser, and with the changing in the arts, it’s probably the one that has the most impact,” Bethel said, “because not only is it a financially successful event, it’s a good way to remind people that the arts are relevant to their lives.”