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When the Power Ball had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, organizers planned a virtual event called Power Up.

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In Toronto art circles, the first Thursday of June is the start of summer. It is Power Ball night – when the aristocratic and arts-inclined gather at The Power Plant gallery on the waterfront for an exclusive VIP dinner, site-specific installations, a wild dance party, themed cocktails – and a good cause.

It is the contemporary gallery’s major fundraiser, with projected gross revenues of more than $300,000.

“The revenue of Power Ball and the time and creative investment is as if we were doing a whole season of exhibitions for one night,” says Power Plant director Gaëtane Verna.

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In late February, 2020, that year’s Power Ball was launched at Holt Renfrew with the theme “Aural Sects, a collection of sensory shocks, perceptual distortions and acoustic experiences, stuck together with safety pins.” Filipino artist Leeroy New was commissioned to animate the gallery in what was to be his first Canadian installation. Sponsors were in place, other artists commissioned, travel booked and tickets went on sale.

But in March it became clear that the show could not go on. Organizers considered moving the event to September, just before TIFF. But there was so much uncertainty.

Thus was born Power Up: a virtual event that would definitely not just be an online Power Ball.

Arts endowments are worth millions. So why can’t organizations draw on them to survive the pandemic?

Patrons with VIP tickets received deliveries of wine, charcuterie board elements and pizza ingredients. Eataly’s head chef led an online pizza-making tutorial, with guests following along at home.

Visual artist Alex McLeod hosted, wearing a pizza-face filter. Verna welcomed people virtually from her bedroom. “Power Up is about more than just keeping our gallery’s lights on,” she told the virtual attendees.

Joshua “Scribe” Watkis delivered a powerful spoken word performance that was very much of the moment; this was very shortly after the murder of George Floyd. An eye-popping video by artist Howie Tsui was followed by a live performance from Tsui’s home in Vancouver.

Then, they partied. DJ Gabe Almeida spun tunes and people were encouraged to get dressed up, turn on their webcams and dance into the night. Donations were optional.

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The event raised $95,000 – with much lower expenses than an actual ball.

More than that, it brought people together. And it showed other organizations that it was possible to pull off a successful – and interesting – online event.

“You get lemons, you make lemonade,” says Verna, who was buoyed by the community’s commitment. “It really gave me more energy to kind of push through.”

Power Up will not return this year. The next time the Power Plant holds a party it will be in person – in June, 2022, or maybe even June, 2023; whenever it’s safe. It will be a ball.

More galas that pivoted online

Across the country, arts organizations took their fundraisers out of the ballroom (or gallery or theatre) and onto the screen. Virtual galas have become a key way to raise money – and bring community together.

Here are a few recent examples.

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Living Room Love Songs

For Valentine’s Day 2021, Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre held an online fundraising concert, with six artists each performing three songs from their homes in a recorded event. Along with a streaming pass, patrons could also order a decadent three-course heat-and-serve meal with wine, a crate full of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers. You could feel the love.

The Resilient Symphony

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and VSO School of Music declared that the show must go on, and did it ever with a February, 2021, gala concert. The lineup for the online event included Itzhak Perlman, James Ehnes, k.d. lang, Steven Page, Measha Brueggergosman, Rush frontman Geddy Lee (!) and others. The event raised more than $500,000.

Ballet Ball: Home Edition

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered a new work online in April by National Ballet principal dancer and choreographic associate Guillaume Côté, who choreographed and set the piece in Toronto, and rehearsed with the RWB company via Zoom. A large screen with a fish-eye camera was wheeled into the studio daily so Côté could watch and teach the dancers. Guests bought tickets for the performance only or could also choose between three home-delivered meal options with wine. There was an online auction as well. A total of $72,000 was raised.

Cork and Canvas

The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra offered a slate of wine, art and (of course) music-related virtual events over a week in April, 2021. Choices included a silent auction, an online gala in which CPO musicians performed works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Strauss, and an art talk exploring the Group of Seven – people at home were invited to follow along with champagne and chocolates delivered to their doors.

Illuminate

The Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., declared itself “virtually, the best place to be” on April 24, 2021, as its annual gala went online. The 90-minute production included performances and a live auction of works by superstar Canadian artists including Dana Claxton, Stan Douglas, Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and others. The at-home gala experience included dinner, wine and cocktails delivered to patrons’ doors. The virtual gala and auction raised over $650,000.

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