Notebook on an Auction

It was a splendid night, this first Monday in August, and a splendid new venue for the annual Possible Dreams auction: an elegant tent in Ocean Park with the moon rising over the sea beyond. A few years ago, when the event was postponed due to rain, organizers learned the hard way that some big spenders could stretch their weekends to Monday night but not another night, so they addressed that. The auction is now weatherproof, yet still picture-perfect Martha’s Vineyard.

And despite all of this, bidding at this week’s annual auction was off by fifty, in some cases seventy-five per cent. It was like bargain shopping for anyone with thousands to spend for a good cause, which a few years ago seemed like plenty of people. But this year, the financial crisis reached so deeply even into the pockets of the very wealthy that dreams were going cheap. And the effect may well be a cheapening of what comfort Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the sole beneficiary of the important auction, can offer Islanders throughout the rest of the year.

Now for a bit of gentle critique from the sidelines. It is clear that auction organizers are still wrestling with the dilemma of how to fully move on from the loss of their longtime auctioneer, the late Art Buchwald. One could imagine Art beginning proceedings this year with a quip like, “Anybody here work for Goldman Sachs?” But there was little humor on the podium, little of Art’s insider cajoling and chiding and charming or out-and-out salesmanship. Certainly, his performance is an unfair bar; after all, who can replace Buchwald? All the same, the vibe at the microphone does matter. A snake charmer may not have been able to coax record bids from a crowd in this economy, but it may help to bring some celebrity familiarity back to the front of this show.

Art’s touch was also authentically Island, and it seems that, too, counts for a lot in this singular auction. By and large, the dreams that did best, even in these tough times, had a real Island connection. It was a day painting with Allen Whiting, and his artwork, that snared five figures. And an excursion on Nat Benjamin’s boat with Carly Simon and Ben Taylor singing, and photographer Alison Shaw recording it all, also did well, despite the absence of most of the celebrities involved (Ms. Shaw waved modestly from the audience). An extravagant trip to the Grand Prix in Brazil was hard-pressed to match the bid for a sunset sail around our own harbor.

Perhaps tough times don’t suit the showy aspect of a celebrity auction. Though the total bids were relatively down — Mr. Buchwald’s spectacular last turn raised some eight hundred thousand dollars, while this year brought in around five hundred thousand — a single donor wrote a five-figure check, higher than any of the bids by a long shot. The donor could have bought many dreams for the price, but as one financial observer explained: “If you donate and get nothing in return, you can write it all off.” Smaller donations, ticket sales and a pricey dinner nearly doubled the amount raised from dreams bids.

Fortunately, Community Services has steadfast supporters: the kind who can write big checks, can donate amazing experiences, and can freely give hundreds of hours to help it all happen. It runs a lean operation, and people wise with their money recognize its value. The Possible Dreams auction is the only major fundraiser that community services, so critical to Island welfare, holds each year. Yet since the auction debuted more than thirty years ago, fund-raising has become practically an industry in itself here. Politicians in particular are making the Island a more frequent fund-raising stop, flying in to squeeze contributions from the same donors.

There is no simple strategy to address challenges so complex.

Still the night felt warm and full of community, and not like an event whose time had passed. Community Services is ready to work with what it raised, and half a million dollars is no small sum. The dreams organizers are to be congratulated, and the rest of us might be reminded that this event is not just about fat wallets. We are the community and we can be of service. Help each other.