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A Virtual ArtBlink


Non-profits throughout the city became increasingly creative as the pandemic wore on, cutting into classic fundraising ventures. ArtBlink, which benefits the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB was just one example.


In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB held its 36th annual and first-ever virtual ArtBLINK Gala on Friday, Feb. 5, featuring an online art auction of 20 original pieces from local artists to support cancer research.

Birmingham’s premier event still featured local artists who created original works of art in the “blink of an eye” to be sold via auction to the highest bidder; but this year, attendees bid online. Proceeds from ArtBLINK support top-priority projects in cancer research and care through the O’Neal Cancer Center’s Fund for Excellence.

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB is among the nation’s leading cancer research institutions and one of only 51 cancer centers in the country with a “comprehensive” designation from the National Cancer Institute.

“Being routinely recognized as among the nation’s best means the residents of Alabama have access to the latest therapies, cutting-edge clinical trials and the expertise needed to treat their cancer right in their own backyard,” says Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O’Neal Cancer Center. “The bright side of having this event virtually is that it provided more people—patients, family members, caregivers, students, health care advocates and professionals—the opportunity to attend.”

Television personality Jeh Jeh Pruitt hosted this year’s festivities, which included 20 local artists who specialize in a variety of art forms, including watercolor, metal, glass, oil and clay. Participating artists included Larry Allen, Ahmad Austin, Vicki Denaburg, Joey Longoria and Carrie Pittman, as well as Marshall Christie, Savannah Smith and Ajene Williams from Sloss Metal Arts. Most of these artists have a personal connection to cancer and volunteer their time and talents to this cause because it has touched each of them in some capacity.

A special highlight of the evening recognized George Wheelock III, this year’s Director’s Circle honoree. Wheelock, a founding member and former president of the Advisory Board, has served the Cancer Center in many ways over the past 40 years. The ArtBLINK Director’s Circle is a membership program that offers individuals from the community an opportunity to engage with the O’Neal Cancer Center and further invest in its high–priority initiatives, including cancer–related research projects and patient navigator programs.

In addition to watching the event’s video program for free and bidding on artwork through its online auction, each attendee had the option to buy a ticket to reserve a special ArtBLINK dinner from Iz Catering to enjoy at home.   

“A lot of planning went into the process,” says Danya H. Segrest, MPA, Corporate Development and  Special Events Director at the cancer center. “We would normally begin the planning process in June for our in–person event, and for this event had our first planning/brainstorming session on June 15, so that was on schedule. At this meeting though, we were in between a hybrid version of the event and a fully virtual version. I think we decided to go fully virtual by August though, once we realized that the staff wasn’t going back to the office full time for a while. At that point, we began the planning in the fully virtual direction, but with the added challenge of a dinner pick-up.”

At a typical event, planners factor in a headcount range for food, and graphics, signage and décor for the space. This year’s event had a few more layers–food for what was estimated at 400 but turned into 1,000, a central location off campus for all 200 to 500 cars to come through and pick up dinner, a means to showcase the 20 artists who were participating, content to fill one hour of air time, content distribution, virtual auction, and the list and layers go on.

“So not to simplify what we normally do for ArtBLINK because each year presents it’s own challenges. For example, the 2018 event had only one side of the escalators in the Kirklin Clinic working, but this one took a great deal more detail to get that right balance of compelling and interesting content, budget, and donor experience we needed for a successful event,” Segrest says.

To pull all of this off, they had to assemble an A-team of content producers, caterer, staff and volunteers, graphic designers, print shop, and parking deck property owners.

AG Lighting & Events produced the artist videos, graphics, and the final complete video of all the content. Spectrum Reach/Kernel produced the branding video and honoree video, and UAB marketing produced a survivor video that highlighted the center’s clinical trials program. Iz Catering handled all the food and assembly.

“Our staff and volunteers had to step WAY out of the box to get the logistics just right–and did so 1,000 times over with a smile on their faces,” Segrest says. And between Kristen Bailey Design, Cayenne Creative, and Cornerstone Media, they communicated all that people needed to do in order to participate this year.

Segrest says the community is incredibly supportive and showed up to support the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“We raised $777,000 this year, which surpassed our 2020 event total by $10,000. Our donors were on board with going through our dinner drive–thru and we managed to efficiently provide dinner for 1,000 people in two hours.

“One of my fears was that we would go through all this and then no one would watch the event. We ended up with 233 views on YouTube that night and since that night, over 1,000 views. We also sold more art than we ever have, so our wonderful artists received a lot of love (which makes me so happy as they are what make the event so unique).

“In a nutshell, every challenge we faced, every detail we needed to fine tune, and every sleepless night was 100 percent worth it because our donors and board members deserved it for all they have done to support the Cancer Center. The artists deserved it because art has healing power and we have a fantastic art community in Birmingham that needs to be highlighted. And our the doctors, nurses, researchers, and staff at the O’Neal deserved it because everyone has been working incredibly hard and under their own challenges over the last year to keep the research moving forward and keep our patients cared for in the best possible way. All that went into this event is dedicated to them,” Segrest says.

Major sponsors for the event were AutoTec, Edwards Chevrolet, Protective Life Corporation, Regions Bank, The Thomas E. Jernigan Foundation, UAB Health System, and Vulcan Value Partners.

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