Gala ticket holders stand tall in support of Taft Museum

The Taft Museum of Art’s 2020 gala was going to be dazzling. They would be celebrating a particularly notable occasion – the 200th anniversary of the building that houses the museum.

Built around 1820, the elegant Federal-period mansion has a vaunted place in Cincinnati history. Not just as a repository of art, either. The building was already nearly 90 years old when thousands of people gathered outside to hear William Howard Taft accept the Republican presidential nomination in 1908. Unlike so many other cultural institutions, the Taft is not just a place where history is studied. It is a place where history has been made.

“Light Up the Night with the Taft,” the June 19 event was called. After more than a decade of fundraisers held in early May, the Taft had moved its most significant fundraiser to mid-June. After all, this is an event held outside. And what could be more grand than to spend a warm summer evening in the Taft’s oh-so-tasteful rear garden sharing a sumptuous dinner, good music and perhaps even some dancing?

What was the worst that could happen? A thunderstorm? A cold snap?

How about a pandemic? No one had planned for that.

The museum shuttered its doors on March 13. They had already sold 235 tickets to the event that they hoped would eventually attract more than 400 people.

“We held out hope for several weeks that things might be okay by mid-June,” said Jennifer Horvath, director of development. “But if you recall, things were changing almost every day for a month.”

Jennifer Horvath

Looking back on the news coverage from late March, it’s true. People didn’t know how widespread the novel coronavirus was, nor how deadly the COVID-19 disease it caused would be. But as the number of infections and deaths continued to grow, Horvath knew the Taft would have to join the many other arts groups that had canceled events.

“We canceled on April 20,” said Horvath. The formal invitations hadn’t even been dropped in the mail yet.

Mind you, this cancellation will not break the Taft. The museum will survive. But it is sure to alter the course of the impressive progress the institution has made in its efforts to throw off the common perception that it is a staid outpost of the old school of American art museums.

The recipient of the gala’s proceeds is the museum’s education program. The hope was that this year’s gala could bring in more than $150,000 in net proceeds to support the museum’s educational outreach.

That is a formidable shortfall. No one was certain how they would make up for the loss.

But something unexpected happened. When the Taft informed ticket buyers that the event had been cancelled, they offered to refund the price of the tickets. Or, if people preferred, they could convert the full price of the tickets to a donation.

Like something out feel-good Hollywood movie, all but two of the ticket holders opted to donate their tickets.

Gordy Rich was one who said “yes.”

“Giving them the money is more important than the dinner and a drink,” said Rich, chairman and owner of Reading Rock. He’s not a regular at the Taft, by any means. “But I attended a meeting down there a few months ago and after the meeting took a tour. Just walking around there reminded me that the Taft Museum is the hidden gem of the Cincinnati arts community.”

Gordy Rich

Philip J. Schworer felt the same way when he was given the choice.

“Frankly, I was looking forward to it,” said Schworer, a partner at Frost Brown Todd LLC. When a friend on the organizing committee approached him about buying tickets, it was “an easy ask. It sounded like it was going to be a spectacular event. But when it was canceled, there was no question about what I’d do. I’m a lifelong Greater Cincinnatian and I have known the Taft Museum forever.”

It was a formidable piece of good news in the midst of all the gloomy uncertainty.

Over the course of the last decade or so, the Taft has decisively moved its way into the modern age without giving up any ground to the 15th-19th century art that constitutes the bulk of its collection. There have been a spate of special exhibitions of more contemporary artists, from N.C. Wyeth and Alice Pixley Young to Berenice Abbott and Patrick Dougherty, whose maze of artfully gnarled willow saplings currently occupy the museum’s front lawn.

And thanks to its revitalized rear garden, the museum has been able to welcome a far broader swath of the public than in the past for gatherings like weddings, receptions, luncheons and, of course, the annual gala.

But nothing has done quite so much to extend the Taft’s influence in the community as its educational outreach programs. Some are the sorts of things you might expect – gallery tours and talks by curators. But others are more innovative, like “Memories in the Museum,” ( a collaboration with the Alzheimers Association, the Contemporary Arts Center, and the Cincinnati Art Museum) aimed at visitors with memory loss.

Another is Artists Reaching Classrooms, which immerses high school art students in Cincinnati’s visual arts community and exposes them to careers in the arts. Students interact with professional artists, visiting studios and examining the role of art and artists within society. Students’ work is assessed in terms of methodology and technique. They are shown how to use the Taft as a resource for their own creativity. And they get to participate in an organized exhibition. This year’s exhibit went virtual.

But the pandemic brought much of that to a halt. And by forcing the cancellation of the gala, it looked like the budget might have to be slashed. Now, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of the gala-that-didn’t-happen patrons, the museum’s educational programming will continue.

“Our programs will go on,” said Elise Solomon, director of learning and engagement. “But what they will look like, I can’t really say.”

Elise Solomon (photo by Roman Alokhin)

Different, to be sure. And more of them will, for the short-term, become virtual offerings. The once-popular school field trips will have to adapt for the foreseeable future.

“But we’re determined not to stop engaging our audience or serving people’s needs,” said Solomon. “If I had to find a silver lining in this situation, it’s that it is forcing museums – including us – to experiment and find new ways to approach audiences. It’s an enormous challenge. But I think it’s going to be an exciting one, too.”

M&M thanks the Taft Museum of Art for helping make this story possible.

Light Up the Night with the Taft

Bicentennial Sponsor

The Oliver Family Foundation
Ginger and David Warner
Western & Southern Financial Fund

Legacy Sponsor

1919 Investment Counsel: Ron Bates and Randy Lasley
Fifth Third Bank
Frost Brown Todd: Chris and Angela Habel
The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation
Terry Horan
Anne R. Ilyinsky
Meg and Chris Kohnen
Robert and Katherine Lawrence
Tina and Dudley Taft

Gilded Sponsor

Deborah and Paul Chellgren
Cincinnati Art Galleries: David and Debra Hausrath
John and Madeline Lawrence
Whitney and Phillip Long

Heritage Sponsor

Chris and Trey Heekin
Sarah and Timothy Fogarty
Kenneth Taft Mahler and Molly M. Mahler
Laura and Chip Pease
Martin and Maribeth Rahe
Jack and Lynn Schiff
Michelle and Dudley Taft, Jr.
Melissa Wink and Dennis Smith


Betsy Ahlert
Sheree and Jay Allgood
Joseph Beech III
Tom Besanceney
Ellen W. Boswell
Chris and Beth Canarie
Diane and Bill Carney
Janel E. Carroll
Shannon and Lee Carter
Michael and Jennifer Catanzaro
Philip and Anne Lilly Cone
Kathy and Bill DeWitt
Renie Dohrmann
Jodi Geiser and Jim Miller III
Lu and Thom Gerdes
Bonnie M. Gleaves
Gerry Greene
Louise A. Head
Irmgard and Horst Hehmann
Meg and Chris Hopple
Jen and Lyle Horvath
Anna and Robert Huesman
Jamie Jewell
Steve Kenat and Heidi Jark
Rick Kammerer and Tim Cagle
Tara and Tom Kilcoyne
Jutta and Patrick Lafley
Ginger and Steve Loftin
Ty and Anita Martin
Mr. and Mrs. Michael S. McGraw
Larry and Jill McGruder
Corinne and Eric Mischell
Heide and Steve Moser
Cora Ogle
Maria and Jim Papakirk
Lisa and Chip Pettengill
Anne and Gunnar Pohlman
Wym and Jan Portman
Alex and Andrew Quinn
Anne and Gordy Rich
Ellen Rieveschl
The Roehr Agency
Michele and Randy Sandler
Kathy and Dave Schmitt
Betsy K. and Marvin H. Schwartz
Phil and Lynn Schworer
Andy and Deborah Emont Scott
Dotty Shaffer
Ann Silvers
Betsy and Paul Sittenfeld
John F. Steele
Larry and Ellen Stillpass
Mary Beth and Tom Sundermann
Dr. and Mrs. Wm. Tobler (Terri and Bill)
Dan and Melanie Vollmer
Mike and Sue West
Barbara Weyand
Tenesia and Robert Wildermuth

Donations and Tickets

Maggie and Brad Albrecht
Neil K. Bortz
Jack and Joanne Brown
Debbie Campbell
Jonna and Gary Clayton
Kelly Dehan
Jerry Ewers and Brian Tiffany
Jen Faber
Karl and Donna Grafe
Judy Green and Tom McDonough
Alison and Justin Greiwe
Mr. and Mrs. William Griesser
H. Wilson and Associates, LLC
Maite Iraolagoitia
Richard and Mag Joseph
Kris and Carl Kalnow
Dara M. Kendall
Tim and Marsha Kerdolff
Anne I. Lawrence
Martha and Carl H. Lindner, III
Thomas Martini
Cassie and Lachlan McLean
Jen and Adam Miller
Sue Monteith
Eric and Leslie Nieder 
Robert and Paula Ott
Mrs. Robert H. Preston
Molly Prues
Ruth and Ronald Schmiedeker
Anne and Jim Shanahan
BeBe and Phil Vollmer
Sue Wilkening

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