“Getting 50 artists to agree on anything is like herding cats,” said artist John Prouty.
Rose Rutherford is an expert at getting artists to agree—she’s even able to get them to agree to a reduced rate for themselves.
Rutherford is not a sales shark, not in any sense of the word. She’s known throughout the community as a kind, enthusiastic art lover. She’s the artist chair for the Visiting Nurse Association’s fundraiser, Art+Soup, where area artists sell a variety of original art. Rutherford, who has worked in the medical field (she has Emergency Medical Technician training) was sought out 12 years ago by a friend who was on the committee.
Rutherford proved to have a winning skillset for this event. Along with having medical training, she devotes her time to art. She previously worked in mixed media, but focuses now on jewelry made with natural gemstones.
Carole Patrick, vice president of Development and Communications at VNA, attributes Rutherford as being a huge part of the success of Art+Soup. “Being an artist herself, along with her medical background, she is the perfect person to lead our event. We are thrilled with her strong commitment and of course her expertise in the art field. In fact, if I had to write a job description of a volunteer to lead an event, I couldn’t come up with a better example than Rose.”
It’s a big responsibility with a discerning audience. The event boasts dedicated attendees who’ve never missed it. “Some have had to be plowed out of a snowstorm to get here,” Patrick said. “We have over 1,000 people walking through our doors every year,” she points out, “so it’s a tremendous opportunity for [the artists] to market themselves.”
Rutherford has been artist chair for the past five years. Her responsibilities include making sure there’s a good mix of art in price range and medium, coordinating the judges, determining artist placement on the floor, and managing art sales with coordinating VNA employees.
The event takes a year to organize. “We start working on next year’s event as soon as the current one is over,” Rutherford said.
The 2018 event garnered $148,500 for the organization. All money raised from the event goes to support VNA’s Shelter Program, which is part of their large nonprofit sector. “We’ve been able to put a nurse in every shelter in the Omaha and Council Bluffs area,” Patrick said proudly, continuing that Rutherford is also enthusiastic about the cause.
The artwork process begins with a call for entries several months in advance, and it’s a prestigious honor to be shown at the event. In order to ensure a wide range of art, new artists make up about half of the chosen entrants, and some top-selling artists from previous years are asked to resubmit their work. Well-known local artists such as Thomas Mangelsen have also exhibited at the event. Artists must send in three to five images, the size, and the retail price of each piece they wish to submit.
Submitted images are voted on in a blind jury by two professional artists from Joslyn Art Museum, only bringing in Rutherford in case of a tie. “We usually limit our selected pieces to about 50,” she added, “or it gets too crowded.”
Some artists want to be in the event, but don’t make it because their art isn’t as desirable to the patrons.
“That’s a hard thing to do,” said Prouty, a longtime friend of Rutherford’s as well as a former VNA board member. “To tell someone, your stuff is lovely but it didn’t sell.”
Once the pieces are selected, Rutherford communicates with the artists to keep everyone interested in being in the show. Each artist who shows must donate a minimum of 50 percent of the selling price of their artwork to VNA.
“When she’s talking to artists and she’s telling them that they will donate half the proceeds, it’s not always an easy sale,” Patrick said. “But that really is a driving force of the success of this fundraiser.”
Rutherford is often able to motivate people to be a part of the group by acting as an unofficial cheerleader for VNA, sometimes calling people personally if they don’t respond to her to make sure they are still interested. She also works with some artists to make sure their prices are on point. She might suggest a higher price to a younger artist who doesn’t understand the value of their supplies, or suggest a lower price to someone who has overestimated the amount people are willing to pay for an item. That comes from the 12 years of experience working with Art + Soup.
Artist placement on the floor is important, she said. “We always mix the mediums up, so the display is varied and pleasing to the eye,” Rutherford said.
Prouty said Rutherford also does an excellent job with arranging the floor displays. “Someone has to have the corner table. Rose gets some of the kickback from that.”
In one instance, he explained that an artist a few years back did not like her spot and claimed she wasn’t ever going to come back. Due to Rutherford’s enthusiasm for the event and people skills, the artist came back the next year.
Floor placement involves more than making sure the display is varied. Prouty, for example, is a welder, and wants to be placed close to another welder, a friend of his who often shows at the event, so they can share an assistant.
The two welders would likely be located next to different artists, but their areas will be back-to-back. It is important to keep the art mixed on the floor so everyone has something interesting to view.
“If you have jewelry, for example, and you had a bunch of jewelry all in one spot, a lady might want to look at the jewelry while her spouse would want to hurry her along,” Prouty said. “You want to have something nearby for the spouse to look at, too.”
Add to this the fact that anyone who has gotten an award the previous year gets a prime location in the center of the room the following year. “It’s our way to recognize his or her talent,” Rutherford explained.
Then there are personality conflicts.
Rose tries to keep everyone happy. She knows the artists well enough to know which two not to put next to one another and which to put together. It’s a giant abstract jigsaw puzzle with corner pieces consisting of large, freestanding artwork (often sculptures) and few edge pieces.
She also communicates with the hotel staff in regard to the art, making sure they are within the boundaries of what they can and cannot do at the show.
The day before the show, Rutherford becomes the floor director, straightening out where the artwork is set up and taking care of the artists’ needs.
“Everyone wants to get in at the last minute,” Prouty said. “That’s handled very well. Here’s all these trucks and vans coming in. They have it set up where freestanding stuff comes in through the back door.”
By the time the event comes around, Rose’s hard work has paid off.
“As I walk around the day of and thank them all for being there, they talk about Rose and her excitement,” Patrick said. “They talk about how she takes care of them. Because she’s one of them, she knows their needs. She has the respect of these artists who have joined the cause for that.”
Rutherford likely isn’t around to hear that. She’s still making sure everyone is OK.
“She’s so happy and smiley, but she’s just running,” Prouty said. “Sometimes she’ll come over to me and say, ‘I’ve got to get out of these heels,’ and I will say, ‘well, go sit down, Rose.’”
Eventually, she listens. But not before she is sure she is not needed somewhere by an artist. In the end, Rutherford even helps arrange the details of a sale.
“The artists don’t sell their own work, so we handle all the paperwork when a piece is sold,” she explained.
Although Rutherford puts in a lot of work, it is a labor of love. “The reason I am excited that she’s there, she…has this passion and chooses high-quality art for the event,” Patrick said.
VNA’s 2020 Art+Soup gala will be held on Sunday, Feb. 23, at Embassy Suites in La Vista.
Visit VNAtoday.org/artandsoup for more information and to purchase tickets.
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.