Charitable Art Auction Diorama-o-Rama Is a Wacky Mix of High and Low

Diorama-o-Rama co-organizer Holly Jefferson got into a bidding war over this piece.
Diorama-o-Rama co-organizer Holly Jefferson got into a bidding war over this piece.
Chris Arrant

Have you ever thought it would be fun to view Earth from space, the whole world seeming so small and delicate you could hold it in the palm of your hand? Well, you can simulate that experience and party while you do it at the fourth Diorama-o-Rama from 4-8 p.m. Saturday at the Jefferson Tower in Oak Cliff, where artists will auction off dioramas — small, intricate 3-D models built in some kind of container and typically depicting a moment in time — to raise money for charity. This time the proceeds will benefit the Texas Theatre building, funding the many repairs necessary to maintain the historic landmark.

The organizers of this year’s Diorama-o-Rama are Dallas art scene heavyweights Jennifer Dunn, Shannon Driscoll, Holly Jefferson, Malina Pearson and Ariel Saldivar. The group sometimes changes year to year, but for the most part it’s a core group of women who came to know each other through overlapping music, artistic and charitable interests in Dallas. “The group that does Diorama also has done Wigwam [a charitable pop-up shop], and we’ve done charity bike rides … We initially fell into a friendship and partnership through social networking and friends of friends,” Jefferson says. 

Driscoll, who’s one of the brains behind Oak Cliff arts and crafts hub Oil & Cotton, had been to a diorama fundraiser when she was living on the East Coast. In 2008, when the fiancé of Shawna Frank of f. is for frank jewelry was dying of cancer, Driscoll suggested to Frank and their girlfriends that they throw their own diorama fundraiser to help pay his medical bills. The first Diorama-o-Rama press release didn’t even include an address.

“It was just a word of mouth thing. It was at [Driscoll’s] house with a big wrap-around porch, with a little station in the back where kids could make dioramas. It wasn’t very organized,” says Jefferson, who is a longtime editorial fashion writer for Neiman Marcus. But despite that lack of organization, tons of people showed up and they made more than $3,000. This year they’ll likely quadruple that sum and 70 dioramas are already registered.

Riding the success of that first event, they’ve kept throwing Diorama-o-Rama, each time supporting a different organization. The second year they gave to Resolana, an art therapy program for incarcerated women. In 2012, they raised $8,000 for Cafe Momentum, the restaurant that teaches life and job skills to nonviolent juvenile offenders. “Every time we’ve done it we’ve been able to almost double what we made the time before,” Jefferson says.

Diorama-o-Rama’s popularity isn’t hard to understand. It’s a fun, unpretentious art event that draws everyone from experienced art collectors and gallerists to novices, and anyone can enter a diorama for auction. It’s not uncommon to see a 7-year-old’s creation sitting next to a piece by an established, gallery-represented artist such as Dan Phillips or Bruce Lee Webb. “I saw this little kid’s diorama last weekend,” Jefferson says. “It was this cute little shadow box that was completely dedicated to pork. It was a riot.”

If you're interested in taking a diorama home, you'll be able to find one at an affordable price point. “Some people may be intimidated by going to a gallery ’cause they know they can’t get something,” Jefferson says. “Here you can get something that’s super charming and endearing by someone you might not know yet. Or someone you might know if you hang out in the gallery scene.” The silent auction begins at 4 p.m. Then at 7 p.m., KERA producer Jeff Whittington and artist Christopher Blay will preside over a live auction. If you bid and win, you can pay for your diorama with credit card, check or cash. DJs George Baum and Gina Garza will provide a beat to the evening’s proceedings and at 7:45 a panel of auction judges will award their top three dioramas, along with honors for people’s choice and host’s choice.

A Texas Theatre-themed diorama by Al Armistead up for auction on Saturday.
A Texas Theatre-themed diorama by Al Armistead up for auction on Saturday.
Courtesy Holly Jefferson

“The very first year Shawna Frank made this wooden camera where you press the button and you look through the lens and see the silhouette of a man,” Jefferson says, speaking of past favorites. “Another girl named Amy Stricklin usually turns in about four or five cause she just can’t help herself, and hers are super whimsical and fun and colorful … It runs the gamut of design and your interpretation of what a diorama is. Usually you think maybe a cigar box or something [would serve as the container], but it can extend outside of that.” 

The organizers don’t throw Diorama-o-Rama annually due to busy work schedules. “Usually after we do one of these we’re totally tapped and need a bit to recover because most all of us are either freelance or independent business owners and don’t have time to dedicate to such a massive endeavor every year,” Jefferson says. But since spring, she and the rest of the Diorama-o-Rama crew have been camped out at Bolsa Mercado, which she refers to as their “production office,” planning their fourth event on Saturday.

There's no particular theme or mission uniting the organizations Diorama-o-Rama supports, but each year they've decided to throw it, the right recipient has cropped up. “Each time it has been a situation that has naturally presented itself,” Jefferson says. Because four of the five organizers this year are on the board of directors of the Oak Cliff Foundation, they decided to raise money for the maintenance of the historic Texas Theatre building. “Part of our responsibility on the board is building up donations or fundraising for the Texas Theatre building. It’s exclusively for the building — if the roof needs to be repaired, or anything to financially support the legacy and structure of the building.” Since many of them had also helped throw Diorama-o-Rama before, it seemed natural to combine those commitments.

Upcoming Events

Most of the organizers also live in Oak Cliff, so the neighborhood’s strong presence in this year’s event is for good reason. “The Texas Theatre is pretty much my favorite place in Oak Cliff,” Jefferson says. “When I go out it’s where I like to go. Anything we can do to support them makes us feel good that we’re contributing.” The gift totes, free to the first 50 people to buy tickets, are screen-printed with an illustration by Oak Cliff’s Lilco Press and will be filled with goodies from local businesses such as Dear Clark. Those goodies were hard-won, too. “We don’t bring in a lot of people, like other big art events,” Jefferson says. “We don’t have a huge volunteer base. We really take it upon ourselves to execute pretty much everything and we don’t have sponsorship. We beg, borrow, steal and hustle for most everything.”

You’ll reap the rewards of their hustling on Saturday, and not just when you open your gift bag. For the $10 admission fee (kids get in free), attendees will have free access to many cases of wine as well as three kegs of beer donated by Small Brewpub, which is just downstairs in the Jefferson Tower building. Small will also tour the dioramas before the event opens on Saturday and craft a custom cocktail for the evening in honor of their favorite diorama. Small’s bartender, Benj Pocta, received Best Bartender in our Best of Dallas Issue this year, so that’s no small treat. Food will be for sale on site. Your $10 also includes admission to the after party at Texas Theatre at 9 p.m., where New Fumes and Melting Season will perform. (Separate tickets to the after party are $5.)

The Texas Theatre was their first choice of venue for the main event, but it proved too small to accommodate Diorama-o-Rama given how large it has grown over the years. Silka Sanchez and Trey Covington, owners of the recently renovated Jefferson Tower, donated their space, which kept the event close since it's just a block or so down from the theater on Jefferson Avenue. But the organizers felt it was still important to host a gathering at the Texas Theatre to educate people who may not have seen it, and that’s why this year marks the first Diorama-o-Rama after party. It also provides an excuse for Jefferson and the other organizers to see one of their favorite acts, New Fumes. “We love Daniel Huffman so much, and a lot of times we don’t get out to see him,” Jefferson says. “We were like, ‘Let’s get Daniel to play so we can definitely make it and celebrate with all of our friends after so much hard work.’”

An event of this scope is certainly a big undertaking for five people, but for the Diorama-o-Rama organizers, it's play as much as it is work. Whether it's during the diorama auction or during the show at Texas Theatre, you can expect them to be right in the thick of things. In fact, you just may have to elbow Jefferson out of the way to place your bid on Saturday. “Even as organizers we’re all bidding on these things too, cause we want ’em as well,” she says. “I got into a bidding war with somebody last time. She ultimately won, and I was like ‘I need this!’”

Diorama-o-Rama is from 4-8 p.m. Saturday, October 10, at Jefferson Tower Events, 351 W. Jefferson Blvd., Suite 800. Admission is $10 (free for kids) and includes entry to the after party at 9 p.m. at Texas Theatre, 231 W. Jefferson Blvd. More info on Facebook.

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