ArtsGala: A celebration of students, scholarships and skills

Alexis Ariana ’23 (musical theatre) rehearses for the ArtsGala opening ceremony.

For one night a year, the Creative Arts Center, with all its classrooms, performance spaces, and nooks and crannies, becomes a giant stage. The night’s impressive cast of entertainers—no mere players—are students who sing, dance, act, paint, perform, and enlighten the throng who have come to see what Wright State has wrought in its wide-ranging arts programs.

Such is ArtsGala, a classy and classic gala for the arts that raises funds to benefit these students and others who will follow.

“ArtsGala has a trifold effect,” said Dan Zehringer, D.M.A., chair of the School of Fine and Performing Arts. “Most important, it raises money for us to give to students in the form of scholarships every year. The second aspect is that it benefits the university. It allows us to really shine and provide an opportunity for the Wright State community to see all the different things we do. Third, it raises the level of awareness in the region of what we offer here.”

April 1, 2023, was the 24th ArtsGala, making a triumphant return to its roots following pandemic restrictions.

What went into producing it might come as a surprise.

“What people might not necessarily know,” said Marya Spring Cordes, associate chair of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, professor in acting/musical theatre, and artistic director of the theatre program, “is that we spend a whole year organizing it the minute after ArtsGala is over.” Much of that planning goes toward marketing, securing sponsorships, and assembling gift packages for the silent auction.

That’s where Rebecca Foley stepped up. New to Wright State in January as coordinator of the Robert and Elaine Stein Art Galleries, she quickly came up to speed on all things ArtsGala, where she became coordinator. “When I was interviewing for the position,” she said, “I heard from students how the scholarships from this event impacted them. The stories were phenomenal. That to me is the heart of the event and made me be interested in being here.”

Ava Howe ’23 (dance) performs at ArtsGala’s “The Dance Experience,” which features original student choreography.

Helping Foley was Becca Webb, director of enrollment management and community engagement for the College of Liberal Arts, who organizes the silent auction and oversees ticket sales, one of the primary revenue streams financing the scholarships. ArtsGala generates $150,000 annually for scholarships.

“That money goes directly to the students,” Webb said. “It goes toward their tuition, books, music books—whatever they need to spend their money on to realize their dreams.”

Webb has an interest in those students and enjoys seeing them succeed.

“One of the best parts of ArtsGala is you get to see where the money is going. You see them performing their art. You don’t get to see that in a lot of other cases.”

“I have my dream job in enrollment management. I bring these students to Wright State, and I get to see them perform and do what they love. There’s an energy that I see.”

She tells of fine arts students whose parents tell them that this isn’t a career. Yet those students at ArtsGala have the opportunity to interact with attendees who, by buying a ticket or having a winning bid on an auction item, finance their scholarships. “This pairs them with the people who can get them to their dream. Those students say that the money is making a difference, and their art is making people happy. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. It’s so rewarding.”

After the sponsorships are lined up and all the other logistical details come into focus, there is the beehive of activity in the week leading up to ArtsGala. “The entire building is consumed with transforming what is an education facility into an entertainment facility,” said Joe Deer, distinguished professor of musical theatre and former artistic director of the School of Fine and Performing Arts. Classrooms become stages with lighting and sound. The stage combat room becomes a theater with a dining area.

Ahh, dining. It wouldn’t be a gala without food. ArtsGala features delectables from meat to fish to pasta to vegetables to cream puffs to other pastries and more—all from local caterers—throughout the center.

Deer emphasizes the work behind the artistic scenes. “Every member of the department is engaged in either crafting a show, choreography, music, or special direction. From Monday to Friday is how long we have to make that happen. Our students learn how to put on a show in that amount of time. Our kids grow hugely from it.

Cast performing “Ring of Fire,” a musical revue highlighting the songs of Johnny Cash.

“Saturday afternoon, we do one or two run-throughs to kick it in. Then, Saturday night, the ship sails.”

He added, “It’s one of the most intense entertainment-making experiences we ever do. I think audiences walk into the Creative Arts Center and see how polished it all looks, but they don’t see the energy that goes into making it happen.”

Some of that energy also is on display in the art galleries the day of the event. Tracy Longley-Cook, associate chair of the School of Fine and Performing Arts and associate professor of art, said art students do live painting, engage with patrons, and “offer their expertise on the space.”

“Our students help and work the whole evening. We have photographers photographing the event, painters working off of a model with a costume from the theater, and a printmaker. It’s a fun evening for them as well.”

The energy comes from more than artists. “There are volunteers who aren’t performers,” Cordes said. They staff the break rooms and generally keep everyone on track. “And there are stage manager majors who get stage management experience.” The day of ArtsGala is “a big bonding experience,” Cordes said.

Deer said with pride, “Nothing puts as good a face on our institution as ArtsGala. We have success in sports now and then, but this is our Super Bowl every year.”

Offering a historical perspective is Jennie Buckwalter, now a major gifts fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. She played a major role in organizing many past ArtsGalas. “This was an endeavor that took all hands on deck, all year long. It required support from faculty, staff, students, alumni donors, community patrons of the arts, and vendors. Top leadership at the university was always supportive.”

Students from the fine arts program painting a model at ArtsGala.

Initially, there was a hurdle—getting different people from different arts programs to work as one. “The inception of this was to bring all of these different types of artists and performers and faculty for one grand evening and put our best foot forward to show the arts at Wright State,” Buckwalter said. “It’s not to go unnoticed that all of the arts worked together in such a collaborative fashion. To bring all these experiences together was a feat. It was a leap of faith. But it’s been a success from the get-go.”

The most recent ArtsGala was Buckwalter’s first as a patron instead of an organizer. But the joy and the mission were the same. “My favorite part is getting to meet the students. The driving force behind this whole event is to raise funds for scholarships for these students and raise awareness of the arts.”

“Scholarship support is important for these students to stay fully enrolled and not have to take a side job to take time away from honing their craft. They’ll get a leg up after graduating with less debt, and not worrying about their finances.”

Referring to the patrons and their effect on the student-artists, Buckwalter said, “Everybody who was in that building was in some capacity telling these students, ‘We believe in you and your success.’ The students get that connection and are humbled by it. Some of them don’t have the support of their families. It’s a challenging path for some. To have hundreds of people show up is meaningful to them.

“We try to highlight all the different talents,” Buckwalter continued. And the dedication. “The hours and hours of rehearsal that students and faculty put into making this a success. There’s choreography specifically for this event. Arts students are painting or sculpting live—you can walk by them. You don’t normally get to watch an artist in action. You can see their art evolve.”

Dance major Natalie Nagy of Bellbrook is thankful for how she’s benefitted from a scholarship.

“My ArtsGala scholarship shows me that there are people who believe in my ability to achieve my dreams, and that not only do they believe in me from afar, but they have chosen to invest in my education as an artist. The scholarship has allowed me to attend dance workshops and intensives that encourage me to explore my artistic voice.

“Receiving an ArtsGala scholarship further affirmed me in my decision to study dance at Wright State. It made me feel seen by the faculty and the department, and it gave me confidence that the work I am given the opportunity to do at Wright State is aiding me in my journey to grow as an artist.

“If I would meet the donor who helped fund my scholarship, I would thank them for their support. It is one thing to be a lover of the arts, but to lend the artists of the future a helping hand is a deeper level of involvement. Your support gives me encouragement and hope for my future and the future of the arts!”

The Wright State Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Jackson Leung, professor of music, perform the Gadfly Suite by Dimitri Shostakovich.

The benefit of ArtsGala goes further than one may think. “The impact of this, too, is that many students we are supporting become music teachers locally,” among other creative arts professionals, Buckwalter said. “And these scholarships also help attract other students. Some of our students have gone on to do some pretty remarkable things.”

As an organizer, Buckwalter was part of the post-ArtsGala debriefing. “We wanted to know what went really well, and what we can do better.”

Included in that discussion is the event’s host committee, composed of people in the local arts scene. “We want to know what the community expects,” Buckwalter said.

This year’s committee was led by host couple Jon Blunt and Rodney Veal. “This is the way Wright State connects with the community, to bring people in who can help look at it from the outside,” said Veal, career community coordinator at Sinclair Community College. “Arts education is a vital element to a vital arts community. Wright State is the gold standard.”

Blunt, an interior designer, said he and Veal initially were surprised to have been asked to be the host couple, “but as we discussed it, it made sense because of the background we bring with our connection to the arts community.”

As Veal said, “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. They want people to know what Wright State is really doing, which is producing exceptional students to perform on Broadway and on TV and in the film industry. They win awards, which means Wright State is doing something right. It’s not an easy thing to produce art of that caliber.”

Veal added, “The great thing about ArtsGala is that if you’ve never seen a dance production or a concert, you can get a taste of it. You realize your money is going to building a future in the arts, and how wonderful that is. It’s a win-win scenario. And it’s for a great purpose: scholarships. Some students say this made the difference, that they chose Wright State because of the aid.”

Attesting to its winning scenario is Buckwalter. “This is a fun night and great night but with a purpose behind it: Funding critical scholarships for our students to succeed.”

To learn more about ArtsGala, please visit Donations to the ArtsGala scholarship fund can be made at

This article was originally published in the fall 2023 issue of the Wright State Magazine. Read more stories at

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