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ELEGANCE ON A BUDGET: PAVILION MAKES WAY FOR A PICNIC

In Hillsborough's social whirl, one word, Pavilion, conjures visions of champagne, designer ball gowns and auction splurges. Since1981, Tampa Museum of Art's gala has attracted some of the biggest givers and haute corporate honchos.

No other event said "You've arrived" like dining and dancing in white tie at Pavilion.

That was then. This is now.

Considering the current economic situation, museum board members asked previous Pavilion chairmen to brainstorm a less extravagant fundraiser.

Their idea: Evening in the Park, an elegant picnic Nov. 7 on the University of Tampa riverfront, opposite the museum's new home in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park that opens in February.

That's right, a picnic.

"Those lavish filet mignon and champagne dinners are out of touch and a little gauche,'' said museum trustee Leslie Jennewein, who has co-chaired Pavilion twice.

Evening in the Park offers two options guaranteed to net the museum $250 per person. Guests may bring their own dinner and table decorations and make a tax-deductible $250 donation. Or, for $350, Mise en Place will deliver a gourmet dinner basket and table settings.

Last year's tickets were $600 and up, only a portion of which went to the charity. Now, Pavilion organizers, like those for other fundraisers, want to decrease their overhead expenses to maximize patrons' contributions.

"It's more appropriate and completely different," said museum trustee Allison Adams, who is organizing the picnic with Jennewein.

As for wine and spirits, it's bring your own or order at a cash bar.

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Two hospital foundations also gazed in their crystal balls and scaled down accordingly.

TheStarlight Ball drops its black-tie format for the second year. University Community Hospital Foundation's gala becomes an Out of Africa buffet dinner at Lowry Park Zoo on Sept. 26.

"Tickets remain $250, but you don't have to go out and buy a new dress," said development officer Nikki Powers, suggesting that might shift spending to the event. She hopes to clear more than last year's $100,000 for a wound healing institute opening in the fall.

St. Joseph's Hospitals Foundation isn't even selling tickets to its 16th annual Stepping Out gala. Instead, organizers turned the formal affair into a January grand opening for Tampa's newest hospital in 30 years.

"It's our coming-out party for St. Joseph's Hospital on N Van Dyke Road," said Nora Gunn, foundation director of operations. "There are no tickets, just opportunities to contribute and be recognized with big-name entertainment." She's working toward making as much as last year's ball, nearly $200,000.

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Adams and Jennewein call their picnic "Masterpiece in the Making," referring to the new museum as well as the menu and tables guests will decorate. Adams suggests candelabra, votives and flowers "to make every table a work of art."

Dress code: picnic chic.

"Comfortable, fun, but not jeans," Adams said. "It's an elegant evening with dancing under the stars, not a family picnic."

The sole live auction item hasn't been announced. Could it be naming a menu item in the new museum cafe?

"It's just not a good year to ask stores to donate items," Jennewein said. "Not everyone can give what they typically give.''

Previous Pavilions set the gala gold standard with mink coat and luxury car auctions, five-course menus, even a performance of circus elephants.

Then competition emerged as other charities hosted almost-as-formal affairs, charging as much and more, and attracting substantial sponsorships. Some years, when guests compared the final proceeds, Tampa's only white-tie ball came up unfashionably short. For example, Pavilion raised net proceeds of $126,000 for the museum last year, not enough to rank in the area's Top 10 fundraisers.

If all goes according to plan, Pavilion will return in 2010 to show off the museum as party palace and reclaim its posh title.

That's good news for former museum board chairwoman Pat Carter. She says she's "old school, but open to whatever makes money for the museum."

"Sure, I wish it were more formal," she said. "But this might work better, as far as price, to expose more people to the museum. We'll be there with bells on, and Calvin's medals.'' (Her husband is known for wearing patron pins signifying support of the annual fete.)

Sponsorships will cover most expenses, such as linens, lighting, postage and permitting. Tables and chairs are courtesy of UT; printing was donated by DEX Imaging.

"Our goal is to sell out with 300 guests," Adams said. That's the magic number in case rain causes the event to be held indoors in Fletcher Hall.

Jennewein would like to see Evening in the Park net at least $75,000, including one outstanding sponsorship opportunity.

For a $10,000 contribution, the donor gets to flip the switch for the first time on Tampa Museum of Art's south side exterior lights.

"It's going to be spectacular," Jennewein says.

Pavilion invitations

Past Pavilion attendees and museum members at the $500 patron level and above will be mailed invitations. Others interested in attending may call Ann Marie Moulin at (813) 259-1718.

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