British Invasion offers fun with a purpose

Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 10:56 p.m.
Behind all the fun of the British Invasion Party and concert by The Fab Four runs a serious vein of marketing and fund-raising that aims to boost the cultural offerings at the University of Florida.
The UF complex on Hull Road near SW 34th Street includes the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Harn Museum of Art and the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Collectively, it's now being called the UF Cultural Plaza. Imprinting that name into public memory is a key aim of Saturday's celebration.
Doug Jones, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History, says that name began to take hold a few years ago, when it resonated with a few people in the museum hierarchy and the UF administration. Its big coming-out party was UF's Party on the Plaza, the first joint fund-raiser conducted by the three entities in September of 2003 that was part of UF's 150th birthday celebration.
"Every time we do one of these it gives more of a sense of the Cultural Plaza as a destination and not three separate institutions that are beating their separate drums that are out of rhythm with one another," Jones says.
"It really is beginning to click with people," adds Rebecca Nagy, director of the Harn.
It's also indicative of the approach people take to visiting, according to Michael Blachly, director of the Phillips Center, especially when his facility is hosting matinee performances.
"There's a lot of tie-in with people coming and attending one or both of the museums before the performance or after," Blachly says.
Nagy has seen the benefit of that crossover at the Harn. The opening of the Butterfly Rainforest next door has boosted attendance at the natural-history museum 225 percent for each month since August. Now, when Nagy looks over the comment book at the Harn, she sees, "I came to see the Butterfly Rainforest and while I was in the neighborhood I thought I would come in and visit the Harn."
The joint event also means that three institutions that share a pool of common supporters need only come knocking on doors once a year for a major fund-raiser. Party on the Plaza, which featured the Beach Boys, was a huge success, raising more than a $1 million to fund an endowment for the three.
Blachly explains that the British Invasion, which features the Beatles tribute band The Fab Four, is smaller in scale, not as elaborate and more locally aimed. Party on the Plaza was pitched to UF supporters statewide. After wrapping up Party on the Plaza, the three directors knew they were onto something.
"The feeling at the time was we'd created a real foundation with the three of us doing an event together, and we wanted to keep that going," Blachly says.
Admission for the British Invasion Party is $150, $100 of which is tax deductible. That covers the party and includes a ticket to the concert. Blachly says the goal for the British Invasion is to net $150,000, or $50,000 for each of the three. He says for it to succeed, an event must be fun and it needs a theme in order to generate buzz enthusiasm.
In turn, the money that comes in generates a buzz by bringing in new exhibits, while also allowing the two museums and the performing arts center to commission works of their own, sending the scholarship of UF around the world.
An exhibit about Florida shipwrecks, "Down Like Lead," started its life at the Florida Museum of Natural History and has now traveled around the state. The Phillips Center was able to commission "Aeros," a program that combined gymnastics, dance and music. It was put together in Gainesville and debuted in Los Angeles.
The Harn's photo exhibit, "Jacques-Henri Lartigue: A Boy, a Camera, An Era," teamed the efforts of curators Kerry Oliver-Smith and John Cech, a UF English professor and director of the Center for Children's Literature and Culture. It will now be traveling to museums in Baton Rouge, La. and Madison, Wis.
And that flow comes back to Gainesville with the help of the dollars raised. For example, the recent run of the popular exhibit "Chocolate," at the Florida Museum of Natural History, cost the museum nearly $150,000. Having the supporting programming money allowed the museum to subsidize the admission for the exhibit, so visitors needed to pay only $6.
The Harn's current exhibit, "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," cost the museum $86,560 in loan fees and shipping.
"That's an example of an exhibition that's fairly expensive to put on, that came to us from UCLA, and it was hard to get private funding for it because people were a little nervous about funding an exhibition that had to do with Islamic art right now," says Nagy. "And we felt it was the most opportune time to have an exhibit that looked at a positive expression of the Islamic faith and Islamic tradition."
"It allows us to do things that one might otherwise have to go to a major metropolitan area to experience," adds Blachly.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or

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