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ArtBLINK Gala Goes Virtual for 2021-2022

Story by Emma Holmes | Photos courtesy of the UAB Archives

Fourteen years ago, the Advisory Board of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB added a new feature to its annual fundraiser by challenging 12 local artists to each create a one-of-a-kind work of art in the “blink of an eye.” The artists were given 90 minutes to create and complete their own art pieces live on stage before the pieces were sold in a live auction that same evening. This was the first iteration of what is now known as the O’Neal Cancer Center’s annual ArtBLINK Gala, which has become one of Birmingham’s premier fundraising events.

Vicki Denaburg was one of the original 12 artists who participated in the first ArtBLINK Gala in 2008 and says she remembers feeling nervous about the event in the beginning.

“I was very hesitant to participate in ArtBLINK that first year,” Denaburg said. “Not many artists want to try to paint a painting from scratch in front of several hundred people and then have it be auctioned off.”

Denaburg says that, ultimately, she could not bring herself to say no to the opportunity. She knew that the fundraiser supported an important cause, and ArtBLINK quickly became dear to her heart. Since then, Denaburg has remained an integral part of ArtBLINK and, this year, was one of the 18 local artists who participated in the 37th annual ArtBLINK Gala, which was held virtually for only the second time in the event’s history.

Adapting and evolving

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Advisory Board of the O’Neal Cancer Center had to come up with a new way to host ArtBLINK that followed social distancing and masking guidelines. Instead of inviting hundreds of people to The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital for a black-tie gala, the Advisory Board opted for a virtual event.

For the past two years, the virtual ArtBLINK Gala has included a drive-through dinner pickup, an online auction and an hour-long video program, which premiered on the O’Neal Cancer Center’s YouTube channel on the evening of the event.

This year, the video celebrated the O’Neal Cancer Center’s past, present and future; introduced each of the participating artists; and spotlighted the 2022 Director’s Circle Honorees, Janie and David Brown, as well as cancer survivors Debby and Clarence Pouncey.

The live painting segment of the gala that had historically been held on stage for a crowd was reimagined in a documentary-style video in which the artists were filmed creating the pieces that would be sold at an auction during the event or, in this case, sold at an online auction that was open to participants throughout the week leading up to the event.

One advantage of the virtual format is the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional guests of ArtBLINK and increase participation in the event not only for viewers in Birmingham, but also for those outside the city.

“Anyone can watch it,” said Lee Edwards, current president of the Advisory Board. “The virtual format allows everyone to participate, donate, bid and feel like a part of what we’re doing at the Cancer Center.”

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Additionally, the video provided better opportunities for participants to learn about the cutting-edge research taking place at the O’Neal Cancer Center every day.

“This year, we got to talk about the science more, and people got to learn about how lucky we are to have the O’Neal Cancer Center here in Alabama,” said Charlie Perry, president-elect of the Advisory Board.

“The environment that makes the experience at the in-person ArtBLINK so great also takes away that ability to communicate about other important factors at the Cancer Center,” Perry said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only reason that ArtBLINK has changed over the years. The Advisory Board is always considering new ways to make the gala an engaging experience for patrons and looks to make subtle changes to the event every year.

The participating artists play a role in this process as well. Denaburg, who serves on a planning committee with four other artists each year, says that the artists are always looking for more ways to connect with guests.

“When we started, all of the artists painted in one spot, and the night ended with a live auction,” Denaburg said. “A few years ago, we spread the artists out and started using bid sheets at our stations for the auction. We felt like this small change gave the artists a better opportunity to interact with the patrons throughout the night, explain what we were painting and, ultimately, drive the bids up.”

When the Advisory Board – then known as the Cancer Center Supporters Board – sponsored its first gala in 1986, the event was a traditional fundraising gala. But with the introduction of the artistic elements and the addition of local artist participation 14 years ago, ArtBLINK has become what it is today and serves as proof of the Advisory Board’s passion and eagerness to evolve and improve each year.

Giving it their all

Although the past two years have provided many challenges for in-person events like ArtBLINK, the two most recent galas, which were held virtually for the first time, have broken fundraising records for the Advisory Board. This year, the 37th annual ArtBLINK Gala raised more than $758,000 for the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Cancer Center Supporters Board’s first fundraising gala in 1986 raised $80,000 for the Cancer Center.

In its infancy, the board raised funds for specific projects, such as the 1987 purchase of one of the first DNA sequencers in the nation and the board-supported provision of laboratory equipment for a new cervical cancer program in 1992.

Today, funds raised by the Advisory Board contribute to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Fund for Excellence, which promotes broad areas of basic, translational and population science research relevant to cancer and helps the O’Neal Cancer Center further its mission of advancing the understanding of cancer to improve prevention, detection, treatment and survivorship for all people.

“ArtBLINK provides our [O’Neal Cancer Center] director, Dr. Barry Sleckman, with the funds to do some special projects that are really important,” Edwards said. “I think that’s really important to the future of the O’Neal Cancer Center. It allows us to do some special things that will really make a difference in not only the treatment of cancer patients, but also in, maybe, saving lives through some cutting-edge research.”

The Advisory Board hopes to be back in The Kirklin Clinic for next year’s ArtBLINK Gala, but Edwards is proud to have been a part of the board’s efforts to adapt to a virtual setting over the past two years.

“We’ve overcome some unique challenges,” Edwards said. “To see the board come together during these unique times and put on a very successful virtual event without missing a beat has been spectacular.”

By the Numbers

The O’Neal Cancer Center hosted its 37th annual ArtBLINK Gala on Feb. 4, which included a drive-through dinner pickup for ticket holders, an online auction and a video program that premiered on the O’Neal Cancer Center’s YouTube channel. This year’s event raised more than $750,000 for cancer research and care at UAB and garnered an array of participation from attendees, including:

  • 900+ catered meals distributed at this year’s drive-through dinner pickup
  • Raised $758,000 raised in total through this year’s virtual ArtBLINK Gala
  • 849 total views on this year’s ArtBLINK video program on YouTube
  • 18 local artists participated in this year’s virtual ArtBLINK Gala
  • 8 video premiere watch parties hosted by Advisory Board members and UAB leadership
  • 100 people attended watch parties the night of the premiere of this year’s ArtBLINK video program
  • 450+ views on this year’s ArtBLINK video program in the first 24 hours of the premiere on YouTube

Note: Analytics captured June 13, 2022

The best is yet to come

Since it was established in 1984, the Advisory Board of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center has been known for its commitment to supporting cancer research, prevention and care at the O’Neal Cancer Center.

The Advisory Board was founded by a determined group of women who believed in the Cancer Center and wanted to support it in its early days. Two of the board’s founding members included Kitty Robinson, who still serves on the board today, and Lella Bromberg, who served as the first president of the board when it started in 1984.

“Because the Cancer Center was one of the first National Cancer Institute-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation, nobody really knew what the designation meant or what to do with it,” Perry said. “That group of women decided the Cancer Center was going to be great, and they built this board and determined its direction.”

As the O’Neal Cancer Center has grown, the Advisory Board has grown with it. Lee Thuston has been a member of the Advisory Board since the spring of 1994 and has seen the board set itself up for success over the years.

“The Advisory Board has done a great job of maturing itself and has become a very serious, active board,” Thuston said. “The board has recruited people who are very serious about the Cancer Center and devote an enormous amount of time, energy and resources to our mission.”

With that in mind, Thuston is confident that the best is still yet to come for the Advisory Board and the ArtBLINK Gala.

“Good boards perpetuate better boards, and the Cancer Center has a really good board,” Thuston said. “I can’t wait to see how the Cancer Center, the Advisory Board and ArtBLINK continue to evolve and prosper.”

Virtual ArtBLINK Archive

Watch the video programs from both the 2021 Virtual ArtBLINK Gala and the 2022 Virtual ArtBLINK Gala on YouTube.

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