“Lenni Lenape—Our Native Residents,” an ox decorated by artist Morris E. Docktor, will be among the 11 for sale at auction Jan. 24, 2015 during the Hopewell Valley Arts Council gala at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton.

Gala, ‘Ox’tion to mark end of successful year for Hopewell Valley Arts Council

In November 2013, the Hopewell Express ran a story about the nascent Hopewell Valley Arts Council’s plans to unleash a “stampede” of decorated oxen as a means of generating buzz and raising money. In the story, reporter Sara Jerome wrote, “It might sound far fetched as a moneymaking idea. But cities around the world have tried the same approach, reportedly with fundraising success.”

A little over a year later, the Arts Council is an organization on the rise, and it’s eminently clear that we sold the Stampede short. The regionwide art spectacle generated phenomenal buzz for the Arts Council, and also phenomenal cash, reportedly dropping $73,581 in the coffers when 33 of the 69 decorated beasts were auctioned off online in October.

And they’re not done. On Jan. 24, 11 more oxen will be auctioned off, this time at the Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, which is to be the site of the first ever Hopewell Valley Arts Council gala. A cocktail party and silent auction of art and art-related lots will be followed by a dinner catered by Rat’s Restaurant, with the remaining oxen to be put on the block during the meal.

The “creative black tie” event will a cap a remarkable first year for the Arts Council. Carol Lipson, who is co-chair of the gala committee along with Heidi Kahme, says the Arts Council hopes to raise another $50,000 at the live auction.

Sam Freeman of Freeman’s Auctions in Philadelphia — billed as the oldest auction house in the country — will be auctioneer.

“They’ve sold copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all sorts of crazy things,” Lipson said. “It was kind of a coup for us that we got him.”

For the silent auction, Lipson said the Arts Council was striving to entice bidders with items that suited an arts organization. For example, one item to be put up for bid is cooking lessons from Chef Will Money of Brothers Moon restaurant in Hopewell.

Others include painting lessons, a dinner for four at the Blue Bottle Cafe, a behind-the-scenes tour of American Repertory Ballet and an “Art of the Body” package including Crossfit lessons and a consultation with a plastic surgeon.

Silent auction items are set to be listed online on Jan. 15, so interested parties do not necessarily need to attend the gala to bid. The bidding will end at 8 p.m. the night of the gala, when dinner is set to start.

There is entertainment on the card for the gala as well. A troupe led by instructor Dawn Berman will perform some original dances during the cocktail party, and the cast of Hopewell Valley Central High School’s production of Guys and Dolls will sing. (The school musical is scheduled to open March 6.)

Lipson said for the dinnertime live auction, two or three of the oxen would be auctioned every 20 minutes or so. In the months leading up to the live auction, the oxen have been on public display at The Pennington School.

Because a limited number of gala tickets are for sale, the Arts Council is accepting absentee bids from anyone who is particularly interested in one of the pieces for sale. More information about absentee bidding are online at hvartscouncil.org.

Winning bidders will be able to do what they want with their prizes. Some may choose to continue to display them in public spaces. Some of the oxen that have already been sold have remained on display throughout Hopewell Valley.

Lipson said she has received many inquiries from people asking if there will be another Stampede or something like it in the future.

“We are reaching the conclusion that people really liked the celebratory aspect of the Stampede,” Lipson said. “So we are looking to create more celebrations for the whole town.”

Under consideration are concerts, a harvest fair, and a big presence for the organization at Pennington Day. Lipson said the board has loose plans to host at least one big celebration of art every year.

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The eight-member volunteer board of trustees—Betsy Ackerman, Randee Tengi, Jennifer Wasserman, Liz Bell, Vanessa Sandom, Susie Henkel, Kahme and Lipson—spent much of 2014 ensuring that the Stampede got off the ground. Tengi, who is co-president of the board with Ackerman, thinks the spontaneity of the Stampede was crucial to its success.

“We were hoping these oxen would just appear and would get people talking and questioning—what’s this all about?” she said.

The board believed an Arts Council was needed because they saw so many artists, as well as consumers of art, in the Hopewell Valley, but no local resource for them, Tengi said.

“They would form their own little pockets, but these pockets don’t necessarily talk to one another,” Tengi said. “We wanted to become an umbrella organization where they can share art and ideas with others.”

The Arts Council used Facebook and Instagram as well as its website to make it easy for people to learn about the oxen and the organization. They had no idea how many they were going to make when they started, but were hoping to do between 50 and 70. The final count was 69.

“Hopewell Valley is a large geographical area. We figured we needed at least 50–60 to make an impact,” Tengi said.

The council produced a brochure that was available in shops and published in the Hopewell Express, among other places, giving people the story on all 69 oxen as well as a map to where they could be found. The idea caught on. Many people set out to see all of them, with some people sharing photos of themselves with the oxen via social media.

More than anything, Tengi said, the buzz created by the Stampede verified the board’s belief that an organization promoting the arts in Hopewell Valley was needed. Strong arts organizations exist in Bucks County and in Princeton, but now that the Hopewell Valley Arts Council is up on its feet, locals will be able to forge their own art identity.

“The Stampede was more successful than we had envisioned it might have been,” Tengi said. “The real positive that’s come out of all of this was just how receptive the community was going to be to an Arts Council.”

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Tengi said once the gala is over, the Arts Council will be in a bit of a quiet period. One priority the board has identified is hiring a part-time executive director, a paid professional who would take the reins from the board.

“That’s the only way we can go forward,” Tengi said. “It’s good, it’s where we wanted to be. We wanted to have enough money to hire someone to take us to the next level. The Stampede is making that possible.”

Neither Tengi nor Lipson wanted to be too specific about where the Arts Council goes from here. The board hasn’t really met with the purpose of making any firm plans, and, they said, they will looking to the executive director to set organizational goals for the second year.

But they aren’t relaxing by any stretch. The Stampede and the gala were both the result of months of planning both by the board and by volunteer committees. And in December—in part thanks to the funds raised by the online auction—the organization began fulfilling its mission to bolster the art scene in the Valley via several workshops.

On Dec. 7, Julie Rosenthale of Art Sparks showed attendees how to make treasure box, and on Dec. 11, Becky Morrison of the Garden Club of Trenton gave a workshop on how to make a miniature Christmas tree from cut boxwood.

There have also been a number of Stampede discussions, in which the artists have discussed their inspirations and their methods for bringing the project to life. These are scheduled to continue in January. On Jan. 4, Terry Anderson (Luke the Celtic Ox), Janet Laughlin (Wizard of Ox) and Dana Weekley (Think Inside the Ox) are scheduled to speak at the Pennington Public Library, 30 N. Main St., Pennington. On Jan 11, Nancy Stark (Agricolox), Doc O’Boyle (Mooo’ndrian) and Gyuri Hollosy and Mary Michaels (ArtToro) are set to give talks.

For now, the Arts Council has no formal home, and is relying on local venues like the Pennington Library to donate space for their programs. Down the road, Tengi said, once accounts are settled from the auctions and gala, the Arts Council might begin thinking about a permanent home.

“For now we’re sort of like nomads,” Tengi said. “You have to use space where you can get it.”

The board is also hoping to find some temporary office space, possibly donated—”someplace to park the stuff we’re accumulating right now,” Tengi said.

Office space might also give the board and an executive director a place to plan just what the future will hold for the Hopewell Valley Arts Council.

“We’re looking at a period of growth and planning right now,” Tangi said. “In the next six months, we’ll be asking the community what they’re looking for in an arts council. Right now we’re in an intermediate phase of trying to wrap up the stampede and figure out what our long terms plans are going to be.”

In the meantime, she said, the organization is always looking for volunteers or new board members. A “get involved” button on the website is there for those who might be interested in learning more. For information on joining the organization or attending the gala, go online to hvartscouncil.org.