As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.
Fundraising galas, most popular during the between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.
One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.
Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.
Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.
Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.
In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population.
In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.
Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.
Horror fans are probably already aware that Guillermo del Toro has released a new series, an anthology of shorts available on Netflix titled Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. As the acclaimed horror director introduces each episode, he draws an object from the eponymous cabinet, representative of the story we are about to be told. Here the show is clearly forging a connection to the cabinets of curiosities, or wunderkammers, that were found in the homes of those wealthy and well-connected enough to assemble collections of strange, foreign, and valuable art and objects. Del Toro’s horror series ties in with a specific aspect of these collections, this being the idea of the monstrous. What better way to show your reach and wealth as a patron than to put on display creatures and objects which are typically outside of our control, or break with our understanding of the natural order?
We have long been fascinated with the inhabitants of the periphery of our understanding: creatures and ideas that lie between the fantastical and the real. Just plausible enough to be imagined, but not necessarily so common or true that they are a part of everyday life. This has been explored at length in art, and many examples reveal just how artists attempted to materialize the monstrous.
The 2016 horror video game Layers of Fear, centered around a painter returning home to complete his final masterpiece, explores this topic. The player must explore the kaleidoscopic rooms and corridors of his house, completing puzzles in order to create an ever more disturbing painting. Art plays a central role in creating an atmosphere of psychological horror, with nearly every wall filled with real art supplementing the works created in-universe by the player-controlled artist. Among these, we can see classic examples of horror in art, such as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, and several works from Francisco Goya’s black period. All of these works channel some of our deepest fears and discomforts. Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting is a dynamic composition leading the eye towards the sword slicing through Holofernes’s neck, while Fuseli’s embodies the form of a nightmare through an uncanny horse and goblin. Goya instead turns to images of witches and the demonic, as well as disturbing depictions of violence and death.
Among all of these, however, is an unusual painting. It is a half-length portrait, depicting a little girl holding a piece of paper. She is gazing calmly at the viewer, dressed in rich, sixteenth-century clothes. Her mouth is turned slightly upwards in a subtle smile, and her chubby hands and cheeks reveal her tender age. Why, then, is this young girl placed alongside so many disturbing images in a game where art is used to amplify the horror atmosphere of this haunted home?
Her name is Antonietta Gonzales, and, like her father and most of her siblings, she had a condition called hypertrichosis. This condition is ultimately the reason she is included in this collection. Hypertrichosis causes abnormal growth of hair, covering the individual’s body almost entirely. The paper she holds provides identifying information on her and her family:
“Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable marchesa of Soragna.”
An illustration from the late 16th century shows Antonietta’s parents, Pedro Gonzalez and Catherine. Born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1537, Pedro was brought to France, where he was educated by the court in an experiment to make a cultured man out of what the naturalist Ulisse Aldovrandi called “the man of the woods.” Pedro and his children, four of which had the same condition as him, were treated as less than human, viewed in a similar manner as the objects and specimens that filled the wunderkammers and menageries that the royals and upper class of Europe retained.
Today, a similar attitude can be seen in the fictional gallery created in Layers of Fear. A smaller version of the portrait can be seen throughout the house, but it is placed front and center in the study. Upon entering, the player sees the portrait hung in a prominent, central position in the wall directly in front of them. Several factors impact the player’s reaction and understanding of this image. First, it is already known that we are playing a horror game, and thus any visuals are considered in such a light. We have already encountered several disturbing works before entering this room, and as such are even further prepared to perceive any further work of art in a similar way.
Most players’ reactions reveal the impact this has. Nearly every single player acknowledges this painting with surprise or disgust, especially when it is highlighted in the study. Markiplier remarks “Oh god, oh god, oh it’s so… oh my god. That is so weird. Oh, what’s wrong with your face?” and Jacksepticeye exclaims “Like what the f*** is this? A beard baby!?” Several others compare Antonietta to a human-animal hybrid, a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to the dehumanizing rhetoric peddled by Antonietta’s contemporaries. During a GTLive stream of Layers of Fear, Matt says “Ugh… I am not a fan of that painting. […] Hey owl man. It’s actually a wolf, right? […] Wolf baby! Beware the wolf baby.” Another live stream, this time from DashieGames, similarly adds “What the hell is that? […] That’s like wolf-man baby.” It’s remarkable to see how the worldviews that shaped Antonietta’s life in the 16th century are repeated in the 21st.
The depiction of the monstrous—be it through allegories of our deepest fears, violence, or, in Antonietta’s case, people who look different than the established norm—reveal a steady line between the earliest museums (in the form of cabinets of curiosities) and our imaginations today. This brings us to wonder about the role that museums (whether real or through imagined collections, like that of Layers of Fear) play in amplifying these fears and prejudices. Are we cementing the fears and prejudices that dehumanize those with physical or mental illnesses and deformities?
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities in museums! We do our best to collect the latest job openings, and please be sure to check last week’s roundup. For more opportunities, we recommend the following databases: