Hamptons Gala Season Gone?

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The Hamptons has a world-wide reputation for being a location of means. On the outside, it’s seen as a place of luxury homes and fancy parties, lined by beautiful beaches and noted celebrities. But those on the inside know that part of what makes the Hamptons truly special is its philanthropic community.

For decades, Memorial Day weekend has meant the kick-off to roaring summer nights spent gala hopping or cheering former presidents and Hall of Famers from the bleachers at the Artists and Writers Softball Game. Each event raises funds for a charitable cause, some local, some national, sprinkling in the magic of the season and an influx of tourism. As COVID-19 devastates the East End, perhaps one of the hardest felt hits in its wake will be the reality of a socially distant summer. Gala season has been canceled.

“We are still on and eager to do our part for our charities. We’re holding out hope that we’ll be able to gather in one way or another. This is the worst rain delay I’ve ever sat through,” said Benito Vila, president of the Artists and Writers Softball Game.

The famed AW Softball Game is typically held at the end of August, distributing funds to several charities. While outdoor sporting events are still up in the air, many nonprofits have been forced to cancel.

“What we will miss most is the chance for our animals and supporters to come together at our events,” said Scott Howe, executive director and CEO of Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. “There is always such joy at ARF events. Having our animals there makes our mission tangible to people, and they allow us to thank our community in person. That personal connection is what I will personally miss, but we are already making plans to communicate in new ways while, at the same time, our work continues and evolves to help people and their pets impacted by COVID-19 and all the ways it has changed our lives.”

Elka Rifkin, director of The Watermill Center noted that it’s closed for the foreseeable future. “It is our great hope to re-open as soon as possible to continue to provide time and space for international, national, and local artists to create new work. We are grateful to those who have helped to support us in the past and during this difficult time.” Other canceled events include the Sag Harbor Historical Society gala, Breast Cancer Research Fund Paddle for Pink, and The Surfrider Foundation’s One Ocean Montauk benefit.

Zooming Into The Season

Some organizations are making adjustments rather than pulling the plug entirely. For example, The Surfrider Foundation is taking a unique approach to its 18th Annual Surf Movie Night, typically held at Guild Hall, by considering a potential drive-in movie experience. Others have decided to go completely virtual.

“We decided to pivot very early from an in-person event to a virtual event because we are truly an essential service. Canceling was not an option, as we are still providing all services to victims of domestic violence and have no choice but to raise money to help our clients continue their path toward healing,” said Ellie Kurrus, vice president of the board of directors at The Retreat. She is also the event chair for The Retreat’s All Against Abuse gala. This year, the gala will open up bidding on Friday, June 12, at 12 PM and it will remain open until 5 PM on Monday, June 22. On Saturday, June 13, at 6 PM will be the special Zoom Cocktail Party where bidding will be allowed on premier auction items.

Loretta Davis, The Retreat’s executive director, said of the organization’s largest fundraising event, “We are so excited to share this incredible experience with our guests. This is a new frontier for The Retreat and we have beautifully enhanced the journey. For the first time, access to the gala will be open to people across the nation. We have some superstar guests who will share their experience with The Retreat and some awesome auction items.” Guests are welcome to party in their pajamas, but gala attire and champagne glasses are encouraged.

The American Heart Association’s annual Hamptons Heart Ball will also be held through Zoom on Saturday, June 20.

“Through the Hamptons Heart Ball, we have been able to raise funds to further research and education here on Long Island. Of course, there will be a different feel to the event not having it in person,” said event chair Cristina Civetta. “The details really mirror the program portion of how we do our live event. All of our honorees, speakers, emcees, survivors and event chair will all be dressed in their best Hamptons chic and will provide you with a captivating evening that will encompass the mission of the American Heart Association. We are so excited to be having a live auction that evening also.”

A Means For Survival

For the vast majority of nonprofits, the summer galas are more than a reason to celebrate — they’re a means for survival. “The Parrish acted swiftly on modifications to the schedule of several events,” said Susan Galardi, communications director for the Parrish Art Museum. The nonprofit adapted quickly to its digital platform with online programming. While the Summer Family Party remains on schedule for its August date, the highly popular Midsummer Party and Late-Night Party, the museum’s most important fundraiser, has been canceled for July, and it has not been rescheduled at this time. “Despite the achievements in continuing to serve the community, the museum’s closure has led to a 75 to 80-percent reduction in resources, both staff and revenue,” Galardi added.

Diana Aceti, director of development at South Fork Natural History Museum, noted the museum’s gala, which celebrated 30 years last July, raises two thirds of the organization’s operating budget. “It is extremely important to raise necessary funds for environmental programs, initiatives, and operational costs.” At present, the annual SoFo gala is scheduled in-person for August 15 with social distancing adjustments in place, but Aceti acknowledged the possibility of having to go digital. “If we host an event online, we will include special surprise guests and other special surprises so that guests can enjoy a dinner, drinks, and a concert. We are brainstorming ideas daily,” she said.

The option to go to digital is giving The Ellen Hermanson Foundation a chance it otherwise may have lost — an opportunity to celebrate 25 years. “Twenty-five years is a big achievement and we do not want to let this pass without acknowledging that this is a very big deal for us. We know it is disappointing to have to cancel our in-person fundraiser, but we are confident that we will be able to create a fun, creative, and interactive event while bringing in much needed funds for The Ellen Hermanson Foundation,” Julie Ratner, president of The Ellen Hermanson Foundation said of both the summer gala and Ellen’s Run.

“We are grateful for all the professional, courageous, and compassionate heroes who keep us safe while combating COVID-19 on the front line and we are proud to be part of our strong caring and resilient community pulling together to face this challenge with love and support for each other,” added Ratner.

Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s annual summer benefit is scheduled for August 1. Barbara-Jo Howard, the hospital’s director of communications and marketing will share news about the gala soon. However, she announced, “Later this year we look forward to beginning the largest campaign in our history; a campaign to build a new state-of-the-art community hospital. With lessons learned from the COVID-19 environment, this will undoubtedly be among the first post-pandemic new hospitals in our nation.”

Tom Dunn, executive director at Southampton Arts Center, said SummerFest is still in development, “We’re thinking about alternatives, maybe a smaller gathering and some other ways to come together safely as a community.” An announcement is coming in the next few weeks.

Looking At Other Options

The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation is looking into other options for its annual Hamptons Happening fundraiser. “To date, the Hamptons Happening raised more than $5 million for the SWCRF and its innovative research that is uncovering why cancer develops and how to treat and prevent the disease that affects 1.8 million Americans annually,” Samuel Waxman, M.D., founder and CEO, Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation said of the event that has been held for 15 consecutive years.

“This year, the SWCRF is working hard to create an exciting event that will observe social-distancing measures while bringing the community together. It is grateful to the many chefs, restaurants, wineries, distillers, and fine food purveyors for generously donating their specialties each year, and stands by these businesses and everyone affected by COVID-19 during this difficult time,” added Waxman.

The LongHouse Reserve’s summer gala, themed “Exotica,” has been pushed back “until the first possible moment when it’s safe to have it.” Dianne Benson, LongHouse board chair informed that a silent art and design auction will be available in July, “with a portion of the proceeds shared for the first time with participating artists” who have been hit noticeably hard by the pandemic. Other events pushed back to September include the Southampton Cultural Center’s 5th Annual Wine and Roses Gala and Southampton Historical Society’s 11th annual Insider’s View.

Some groups have made the difficult decision to cancel their events for 2020 and postpone to 2021: St Judes Hope in the Hamptons and the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation’s Unconditional Love Gala. “While we were all looking forward to celebrating the 11th Annual Unconditional Love Gala, we have decided to cancel. We feel that this is the responsible thing to do. The health, well-being, and safety of our guests is our top priority. We thank you for your continued support and look forward to making our 2021 celebration even bigger and better,” said Katie McEntee, SASF’s director of adoptions and public relations and junior chair of the gala.

Prioritizing the safety of others, East End Hospice is encouraging supporters to host a Pig Roast Picnic and dress up for a summer gala at home while donating to their cause. “Many long-time supporters of these events, as well as new donors, have stepped up to make their gift a straight donation this year. Some have even increased their support because they know the need is urgent right now. Other longtime event supporters are pivoting to support our COVID-19 Response Fund or make in-kind donations of much needed PPE and other essentials for our staff,” said Mary Crosby, East End Hospice’s president and CEO. The annual Box Art Auction has been pushed to October, following state and Centers for Disease Control recommendations. 

The famed fireworks over Three Mile Harbor are still planned for July. The Clamshell Foundation’s Great Bonac Fireworks and sandcastle contest are both scheduled and the organization is hopeful that they will go on. “We have the permits. However, the safety and well-being of all is our top priority. We are putting 100 percent of our focus and funds into those in need right now, but remain hopeful the wonderful tradition of the fireworks and sandcastle contest will both happen,” said the foundation’s president, Kori Peters.

Founded in 1901, Southampton Fresh Air Home has been through worse than COVID-19 — it endured two world wars, the Spanish influenza, and the Great Depression. For 32 years, the nonprofit’s Grucci fireworks have been a signature touch to its annual American Picnic fundraiser, an event that typically raises over 25 percent of the organization’s annual operating revenue toward programs for physically disabled youths. While the picnic is packed up, the show will still go on. “Thanks to our rich history and continued support by our community, we continue to adapt and persevere during these trying times. We are currently offering virtual programs and activities which provide for a great distraction and socialization for many,” said executive director Thomas Naro. The annual Decorators, Designers, and Dealers event has been postponed to Saturday, August 29.

This article first appeared in The Independent Newspaper.

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