Hot tip: Diners duped into donating?

Want to support the arts in Charlottesville? Well, a new fundraising program called "Feed the Arts" makes it easy. But some might argue that it's too easy and maybe even unfair.

Hook reader Anna Boeschenstein recently got together for a Friday night dinner with friends at a downtown café.

"At the end of the meal," says Boeschenstein, "we pulled out our wallets to split the total, when my friend Jenny noticed an extra fee on our meal. Our bill had been subtotaled, tip added, and then a 'voluntary $1' added to the check."

Indeed it was voluntary, but in this case it sounds like it wasn't well-trumpeted.

Feed the Arts is the brainchild of Loaina Kerner, chair of the events committee for the City Center for Contemporary Arts (C3A), the new visual and performing arts complex currently materializing on Water Street. The striking structure, which is scheduled for completion this fall, will give a new home to Live Arts, Second Street Gallery, and Light House, and also give a huge jolt to the downtown arts (and dining) scene.

Kerner tells Dish that the idea for Feed the Arts came from a program she encountered while dining out in London, in which upscale restaurants gave diners the option of donating a pound to help the homeless.

With Feed the Arts, patrons at participating downtown Charlottesville restaurants– currently L'Avventura, Bang!, Fleurie, Escafé, Metro, Mono Loco, Oxo, Southern Culture, and Station– can patronize C3A by adding a dollar (or more, if desired) to their bill. The program's goal is to earn $50,000 by November.

But diner Boeschenstein felt blind-sided.

"In order to not 'volunteer' our dollar, we were required to cross the itemization off our bill," say Boeschenstein. "For customers less careful or more inebriated, it would have gone unnoticed."

Kerner says it's the server's responsibility to explain the additional dollar to diners, usually when they hand over the bill. But Boeschenstein believes a donation should be "a proactive offering, never a reactive measure."

An artist and landscape architect herself, Boeschenstein says she "fully supports" the new arts building and, in fact, would gladly donate a dollar or more– if asked. "I hope," says Boeschenstein, "that the City Center for Contemporary Arts will rethink this rather underhanded method of fundraising."

Early on, we also talked to a server at Escafé who wasn't at all happy about this added responsibility put on him, though co-owner Sean Concannon assures us that things are going well overall.

"Most diners are responsive and willing," says Concannon. "There was some confusion at the beginning, but now each guest check clearly states the donation is optional, and we are handing out a flyer explaining who C3A is, and a pen so the customer can opt out if they wish without feeling awkward. The wait staff is getting used to the program and added paperwork."

Alice Kim of Oxo had nothing but glowing reviews, both for Feed the Arts and her own waitstaff.

"I love my staff and we love Live Arts," says Kim. "They help foster an environment of creativity downtown– how can somebody not support them?"

As for the out-of-towners, Kerner says they've been surprisingly supportive of the program. And, much like Kerner herself in London, they also seem to recognize a great idea when they see it. "One woman dining at Oxo said she wanted to bring Feed the Arts to her town in New Jersey. Another from North Carolina said the same thing," she says.