The Other Side of the Table by Kevin Sharp

I had lunch the other day with Lauren Kennedy, the new director of the UrbanArt Commission, the organization that manages most of the public art projects in Memphis, including the city’s percent-for-art program.  The café where we planned to meet was closed that day due to the weather, so I had her follow me to Castle, a place on Park Avenue I like very much; maybe three or four times a month I lunch on a falafel sandwich (hold the pickle), a triangle of spanakopita, and diet green tea.  I asked for the usual, Lauren ordered a gyro, and we took a table next to the window.   

I am on the board of UrbanArt, in fact, I am part of the executive committee.  I also chair the programming committee and the (ad hoc) strategic plan committee, and I was part of the search committee that chose Lauren to be our next leader. So, I am pretty steeped in the organization.  Lauren is young, smart, funny, and energetic, she is well liked by artists, seemingly well liked by everyone, and she is wise enough to seek advice when she needs it.  I assumed that was why she arranged for us to have lunch that day: to consult me about something.   

We ate our sandwiches, well, Lauren nibbled at hers, and we talked about projects she is working on and others she would like to launch. I paid the bill, started tidying up my falafel wrapper, and as I was making the usual remarks that signal parting, Lauren mentioned there was one more thing she wanted to discuss. “Can I count on you to make a financial contribution to UrbanArt this fiscal year?” she asked with a level gaze and not a trace of hesitation in her voice.  I was so impressed, proud really, and I said, “Of course!” before adding, “We will continue to give at least as much as we have in the past.” Right then, I started calculating household finances in my head and whether it might be possible to give more.   

I have been on the other side of this conversation no fewer than hundreds of times.  I had little idea when I signed on to study art history in college and began a career in museum work that I was really punching my ticket as a fundraiser, but that is the state of things.  So, at this point in my career, requesting financial contributions from donors is not something I find unfamiliar or remotely uncomfortable.  But I have to say, until Lauren Kennedy asked me to support UrbanArt, I had never known what it feels like to sit on the other side of the table.   

Erin and I are as generous as we can be.  I would guess we give to various causes (the arts mostly) as large a percentage of our annual income as most people, maybe larger.  But having spent our professional lives doing museum work, an arena where employees are generally undercompensated, our giving is not so impressive that we would expect someone to come to us in person and actually ask us to make a contribution.  Apart from telephone solicitations, it had never happened to either of us even once; that is, until I had lunch with Lauren Kennedy.   

Here is what I learned.  I really liked being asked to support UrbanArt.  I felt honored, important, and altogether essential to the success of the organization.  I knew instantly that my contribution—such that it is—mattered more to UrbanArt than keeping the cash in our checking account would mean to Erin and me. Granted I have not been solicited over and over like the most generous donors of the Dixon have. Maybe in time, some of that good feeling gets transformed into resistance or even dread, but I doubt it and have never seen it.  My guess is that most people—when asked to support a cause—feel pretty much the same way I did over lunch with Lauren Kennedy: a pleasant mixture of pride, duty, and significance.  More people should have the opportunity to feel that way.  The other thing I learned?  Next time, when Lauren offers to buy me a falafel sandwich, let her do it.  The donor never pays for lunch.  

Posted by Chantal Drake at 9:55 AM
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