Venerable PONCHO dons some new clothes

Two years ago, the lavish auction for the arts was in a tailspin. Now the organization says it's back in style, focusing on smaller, wine-based auctions.
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Ferdinando Frescobaldi, of wine family fame, heading to PONCHO

Two years ago, the lavish auction for the arts was in a tailspin. Now the organization says it's back in style, focusing on smaller, wine-based auctions.

Reports of the demise of PONCHO, the city'ꀙs oldest and most successful arts funder, were not only premature; they were apparently dead wrong. PONCHO says it is alive and well, thriving and kicking. As we speak, PONCHO is getting ready to stage a May 22 wine auction at the Sheraton Hotel featuring a famous honorary vintner, Ferdinando Frescobaldi, whose family has been producing fine Tuscan wines for 700 years.

That'ꀙs the latest word from the arts cognoscenti, although it runs counter to earlier reports. In writing about the state of the arts recently, I too had questioned PONCHO'ꀙs health fearing that, given the Great Recession, PONCHO might be hanging up its glad rags and exiting, stage left. It had undergone a rough few past years, after all.

But first a little history. PONCHO was founded in 1963 by Seattle jeweler Paul Friedlander to bail out the Seattle Symphony which was drowning in debt after its lavish production of Verdi'ꀙs Aida, a headliner at the 1962 World'ꀙs Fair. Friedlander came up with the idea of a glitzy, black-tie, charity auction. Kayla Skinner, a passionate arts advocate, suggested the PONCHO name, which stands for a forgettable phrase: Patrons of Northwest Cultural and Charity Organizations.

The gala was a run-away success, a touch of needed glamour in a city known for its low-key, egalitarian traditions. To attend PONCHO, you needed only the price of the ticket, albeit an expensive ticket. It didn'ꀙt matter if your name wasn'ꀙt in Seattle'ꀙs 'ꀜBlue Book'ꀝ — what passed for a social register in a town founded on fish, timber, and shipping to Alaska.

That first PONCHO auction not only paid off the symphony'ꀙs $90,000 debt, but it raised an extra $50,000 for other cultural and charitable organizations and provided $15,000 to launch Seattle Opera, whose annual budget now tops $20 million.

And so the tradition of PONCHO galas was born. For the next 46 years, the auction was THE premiere Seattle charity event. So successful was the glamorous evening, however, that it spawned other auctions. In fact, it became the blueprint for fundraising, not only in Seattle, but in venues around the world. The late Dick Friel, Seattle auctioneer extraordinaire, and his wife Sharon Friel vetted the lineup of auction items for PONCHO and provided the pizzazz for the evenings of wine, celebrity, and snappy wit. Then, off-season, they jetted off to other cities to teach art lovers how to keep cultural home fires burning.

When PONCHO wasn'ꀙt picking the pockets of arts lovers in Seattle, it served as a model for dozens of other local fundraisers, filling coffers for dozens of cultural and charitable group, political, and environmental groups that were building on the benefits sowed by the granddaddy of all Seattle galas.

So what can one make of the fact that PONCHO, after raising $33 million for the arts over its 46 year history, has put its signature gala 'ꀝon hiatus?'ꀝ The organization had too much competition, and some felt its overhead was too high, the galas consumed huge amounts of energy from volunteers, and that PONCHO had diluted its gifts by inviting in too many smaller arts groups as beneficiaries. An auction two years ago had a net loss of $200,000, leading to the departure of its executive director. The famous yearly auction was put to rest. Is all this an ominous sign for arts and culture in the city, or just a normal evolution of an aging institution?

Quick to counter that gloomy notion and set me straight were PONCHO enthusiasts who invited me to talk about PONCHO'ꀙs future over lunch — where else for traditionalists? — at the Rainier Club. Janet True, PONCHO president; Lorna Kneeland, the executive director, and board member Llew Pritchard agreed that not only is PONCHO prospering, but it'ꀙs an especially exciting time for the venerable organization.

'ꀜWe'ꀙre nimble,'ꀝ explained Pritchard. 'ꀜWe'ꀙre doing what we do best, raise money for the arts so they can grow and thrive.'ꀝ True added that, as profits from the blockbuster gala diminished, two other PONCHO Events, a spring wine auction and a fall arts auction, are ably filling the need, taking on renewed luster by adopting to the hot-selling items at most auctions, fine wine.

PONCHO recently was selected to help open the Bravern'ꀙs Neiman-Marcus store in Bellevue, raising funds for the arts while introducing patrons to luxury merchandise. As True pointed out, 'ꀜIt was Neiman-Marcus'ꀙ largest opening ever.'ꀝ And, with Northwest ingenuity, the event utilized social media to sell and resell tickets for the pre-Grand Opening Gala.

For those who had purchased tickets as a benefit for the arts, but who later found out they couldn'ꀙt attend, the opportunity to double their contributions amounted to a bonus of more than $100,000 for local cultural organizations. Pritchard joked, 'ꀜWe sold some opening night tickets twice over. It was the Seattle version of selling the same Chicago cemetery lot several times.'ꀝ

It'ꀙs great to know that PONCHO is thriving, agile enough to "pull a Chicago." When tough times come along, we need an organization that isn'ꀙt resting on its laurels, but instead is trying dynamic new fund raising approaches. PONCHO supporters say it'ꀙs all about passion and dedication and (don'ꀙt tell) having a heck of a lot of fun.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.