The first time Art Access had to redesign its popular 300 Plates fundraiser, it was because the 10-by-11-inch works contributed by Utah artists caused chaos.

“I have heard stories of two people going into the gallery and literally fighting, like on the ground, trying to get the same plate,” said Executive Director Shandra Benito. “It’s definitely high stakes.”

Under the newer tradition, interested buyers paid $75 for a ticket and chose a wristband color. Benito would randomly select a color from a hat, and people with those wristbands took their turn choosing their plates.

But when COVID-19 landed in Utah, Benito knew the art party the fundraiser had become — with live music and drinks for those waiting — would have to change again.

She ultimately decided that an online auction and sale for those who buy “wristband” or “ticket” codes, followed by an online sale for the public, would be the safest and most effective way to sell the plates. A preview of all the plates in this year’s show will be revealed online Monday. A silent auction and ticketed sales will begin Thursday, and the public sale will start Friday.

“Not being able to hear people cheer and groan when the wristbands are called will change it a lot, for sure,” Art Access supporter Virginia Gowski said. “But I think Art Access has a lot of community support and my hope is that people will still support it online.”

Art Access and its supporters feel “sad that we can’t get together and have a party,” Program Director Kerry Carlson said. And like all nonprofits, Art Access has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus, Benito said.

“We’re experiencing a pretty big loss in revenue for the event, so it’s more important than ever that we sell the plates,” she said. “Also, for our artists, we want to sell as many plates as possible so our artists can see some income.”

Art Access provides art programs for Utahns with disabilities and from marginalized communities. 300 Plates has raised essential funds for its art therapy, veterans art and other inclusive workshops.

Some of Utah’s most prestigious artists contribute paintings to the fundraiser, so it gives buyers the chance to get their work at a significant discount.

Gowski has been attending 300 Plates for 13 years and considers herself lucky to own plates by established Utah artists like Erin Berrett — original works she figures she could only afford to buy this way. But she has found that Art Access gives voice to up-and-coming artists as well.

“One of the great things about 300 Plates is that it’s a great place to get out of your comfort zone with art,” Gowski said. “If you’re the type of person that only buys landscapes, you may see something contemporary that catches your eye and you love it. It’s a good place to expand your horizons.”

‘There’s so much uncertainty’

An online format isn’t ideal, said Salt Lake City-based painter Derrek Wall.

“It’s been challenging and disheartening because I feel that so much of how we interact with art comes from being in its presence,” Wall said. “We experience it as much through our eyes as through our bodies by being near it.”

But he and other participating artists are thrilled that the fundraiser will continue, especially given the interruption in art shows caused by COVID-19.

Art Access usually retained 70% of the plate sales and gave 30% to the artists. But Benito decided that this year, the revenue would be split 50/50 between artist and gallery. The extra revenue sharing can go a long way for artists like Wall.

“I just feel gratitude that Art Access being conscious that artists also need help, just as much the gallery needs help,” he said.

Wall’s work focuses on big, colorful explorations of queer identity and marginalization with special emphasis on faces. This is his second year participating in 300 Plates, and he has submitted two plates that will be sold online.

“You really have to plan ahead and be patient,” for the smaller works, he said. “Normally, I work spontaneously, but for both of these plates I actually made mock ups and drafts to accommodate the size. It’s fun to see how you respond to the planning. You can plan as much as you want, but it still won’t turn out exactly how you want it.”

For other artists, like Vita Kobylkina, the 10x11 format is more in line with their typical compositions, but the chance to be included in a show with acclaimed Utah artists is rewarding.

“Working at a frame shop, I’ve always framed other people’s plates after the show, so it’s been a goal of mine to be a part of the plates show,” she said. “I finally got the courage to approach them and see if I could participate and was able to get a couple of plates in four years ago. I have been so honored to show among so many prominent Utah artists.”

Kobylkina immigrated to the United States from Ukraine with her family when she was 8 years old. She chooses a theme for her contributions, and focused on the vegetables she found in her refrigerator for this year’s event because COVID-19 limited her access to other subjects.

“It’s been hard for me to be motivated during this weird time,” Kobylkina said. “There’s so much uncertainty, and it’s hard to get in front of the easel and want to produce artwork right now.”

Hours were reduced at Brushworks Gallery where Kobylkina works and her partner is currently using unemployment benefits, so the added funds from the 50/50 split will help to keep them stable. “I feel like it’s really gracious of them,” she said, “because I know they also need the funds.”

‘We have to continue’

Usually around 10 volunteers would help plan 300 Plates, and about triple that number would help on the day of the event. This year, the bulk of the work has fallen to Benito and Carlson.

They set up a makeshift drive-thru out of the back of Carlson’s car so artists could hand off their contributions without physical contact.

The revenue generated from 300 Plates could go a long way in keeping Art Access and its programs afloat. “We’ve had to put things like art therapy and our veteran’s arts programs on pause,” Benito said. She’s also announced that Art Access is closing its gallery and moving out of its offices on 500 West in Salt Lake City.

Art Access hopes to soon resume its Breaking Barriers program — a curriculum intended to teach other community cultural institutions ways to accommodate and connect with individuals with disabilities. There’s also hope that Partners Artist Mentoring can soon continue, to connect aspiring disabled or marginalized artists with established professionals as mentors.

The halted workshops are “definitely disappointing, but we realized that there are some programs that Art Access provides that no one else is doing that we have to continue,” Benito said of prioritizing Breaking Barriers and mentoring.

The organization was originally planning to go down to one employee — Benito — in August, and reducing her hours to part time. But if the fundraiser goes well and if they receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts CARES Act, they may be able to keep three employees on staff.

Benito hopes to incorporate the lessons learned from this year’s event in future planning, a thought Carlson echoed.

“I think a lot of organizations are realizing that, ‘Wow, we can actually do it this new way, and we might keep doing it this way after things go back to normal,’” she said. “The digital tools we’re using online make life a lot easier and more flexible.”

But 300 Plates, in some form, is a part of the organization’s future.

“It gives us a chance to be in touch with our artists, get to know our artists’ community, feature new, emerging artists and also feature artists in our programs,” Benito said. “We have artists who have literally done it every year since it started. We love the event and plan to continue to do it.”

HOW TO SUPPORT ’300 PLATES’
Registration is required to participate in the event and is available at accessart.org under the “300 Plates” tab.
Monday, May 11: A preview of all the plates in this year’s show will be revealed online.
Thursday, May 14: A silent auction and the first sales to ticketed buyers will begin.
• Patrons who purchase a $1,000 Golden Wristband receive five access codes and can begin to buy pieces starting at 9 a.m.
• A silent auction will also begin at that time — where plates begin at $85 and are bid on in $1 increments.
• There are also five $1,000 plates that will be available at 9 a.m.
• Patrons who pay $300 to become $300 for 300 members receive two access codes and can buy paintings starting at 10 a.m.
• Patrons who purchase a $25 ticket get one access code to start purchasing at noon.
Friday, May 15: The silent auction will close at 9 a.m. and unsold plates will become available to the public.