If you’re in downtown Asheville on Saturday, Sept. 9, and see people dashing down the sidewalks in blue outfits and other formal attire, don’t be alarmed. These costumed folks are out reveling in the name of the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Indigo Color Ball, a sight unseen for two years — and in many ways, even longer.
In 2016, the AAAC was occupied with moving into its 15,000-square-foot studio in The Refinery Creator Space on Coxe Avenue and settling in after a staff restructuring. Instead of adding the mammoth responsibilities of planning a color ball to that equation, AAAC Executive Director Stefanie Gerber Darr says the staff put its efforts into readying the building, whose grand opening last September drew about 700 attendees.
“Our focus was just in a different spot last year,” Gerber Darr says. “So, we decided, ‘All right, we’re a year in now, and everything is going great, and everyone knows about The Refinery now, and we do need to do an annual fundraiser because the grand opening was really just a celebration of the building.’ So, as a small nonprofit, we definitely wanted to bring back our color ball.”
‘A beautiful labor of love’
In looking for a collaborator to help relaunch the event in full force, AAAC board President Gar Ragland turned to contracted event planner Kelly Denson. The two had previously worked together on Music Video Asheville, which Denson calls a “huge endeavor” and one that encouraged Ragland to loop her in for orchestrating the color ball’s return to a five-party night. “But I don’t know that anything could have prepared me for an event of this magnitude,” Denson says. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful labor of love.”
Over the course of two to three meetings, Denson and the AAAC representatives decided on indigo, a shade that had yet to be used for naming past balls. Mindful of the event’s hiatus, what sealed the choice was a recognition of its history — specifically the original Blue Ball, founded by Rick Ramsey 15 years ago.
In early 2002, Ramsey was just starting his tenure on the arts council board. One night, he and his friend Adrienne Kort (then the AAAC’s development director) went out and brainstormed ideas of how to make a good fundraiser for the arts council, which he says needed the money. Looking for something fun that hadn’t been seen in Asheville, they came up with the idea for multiple parties and got to work.
“Back then, there was a lot of vacant space, or people didn’t mind you using their space as much, so that was easy to come about. And the restaurants weren’t as busy, so the food fell into place, and we got sponsorships,” Ramsey says. “We just sort of decided to call it the Blue Ball, which worked in our advantage because it put the name on the street because everybody sort of made fun of it a little bit, sort of as a jest, but for us, it worked. It was a success from right at the beginning.”
Ramsey was involved in the next four color balls, chairing them before transitioning to fundraising and then removing himself from behind-the-scenes involvement. (“Everybody needs to have a change of direction,” he says.) Ramsey attended a few color balls after leaving his leadership roles and is excited to have been coaxed out of “retirement” by his friend Letitia McKibbon.
“There’s this wonderful frenzy about it, and there’s nothing like it as you’re trying to get from one party to the other,” Ramsey says. “Sometimes you don’t want to leave that one party, but you sort of want to see the others. That was back from what Adrienne and I thought it would be. We wanted that frenzy. You wanted that hustle and bustle on the street.”
All tomorrow’s parties
“Indigo was kind of an homage to the fact that we’re going back to this, old-style,” Denson says. “These used to be the most incredible parties in Asheville, and we really want to emphasize the fact that they’re going to be as awesome, if not more awesome, than they once were.”
The five-party approach hadn’t been used since 2008, after which two-party evenings became the norm. To resuscitate the big night, the organizers handpicked what Denson calls “movers and shakers in the community [who are] really well-connected, and people who are known for giving back to their community.” Granted a budget for local entertainment and decor, the hosts were free to choose their events’ themes and recruit food, drink and other donations to achieve their visions. All of the locations were also donated for the evening, and 70 volunteers have given their time for the cause.
As the party’s details started trickling in, Gerber Darr says she was “floored” by the hosts’ ideas and how each event fit the personalities of each planner while still reflecting the color’s many possibilities. Denson was also impressed: “I’m stoked about the creativity that’s going into it and how they all ended up being so very different. We’re hitting different spectrums, different groups of people — I think there’s a party that will speak to everyone.”
Those who purchased a now-sold-out, all-access Patron ticket will begin the evening at The Refinery Creator Space at 6 p.m. Titled “Out of the Blue,” the pre-pre-party is hosted by local artist Joseph Pearson, under whose guidance the space will be transformed into a celestial facsimile. A star-clad hallway leads to the event space, featuring hors d’oeuvres by Jargon Restaurant, music by the Justin Ray Trio, an interactive performance by Asheville Contemporary Dance and body painting courtesy of Ren Allen. Patrons then have the luxury of checking out all three pre-parties from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., though attendees with regular tickets must choose one.
Heather Smith, Michael Parker, and Jean-Paul and Angela Lausell host “Tokyo Twilight” at the RISC Networks building. Sake by Ben’s Tune Up and Asian bites from Margeaux’s Catering are the featured refreshments, along with Absolut cocktails and beer from Hi-Wire Brewing. Backed by selections from DJ Phantom Pantone, Asheville Aerial Arts will stage various performances, and Asheville Darkroom will show off its projection art. Allen will also make her way over from The Refinery to live paint models.
Lexington Glassworks is the site for “Under the Sea,” hosted by Lauri Nichols and Chris Bubenik. Live music comes courtesy of steel pan player Jonathan Scales, while seafood from chef Anthony Cerrato of Strada Italiano and The Social Lounge will be paired with Blue Lagoons — the event’s signature cocktail — and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. beer.
But it’s tickets to Flamenco Nights at the AC Hotel that have sold — and, in fact, sold out — at the fastest clip. Hosted by Ramsey, McKibbon and Kathleen Hutchinson, the Spanish-themed party begins with street-level music by guitarist Tim Doyle. Moving upstairs, guests can snack on sweet and savory tapas by Capella on 9, beer from Oskar Blues and the party’s signature cocktail, Andalusian Passion. Flamenco band The Juan Benevides Quartet will provide music while roving groups of Latin dancers move through the room.
Denson credits the party’s popularity to locals’ intrigue with the new hotel space, which they’ll get to see even before its grand opening. She also views the party’s popularity as recognition of Ramsey’s role as the color ball’s founder.
While AAAC supporters who missed out on getting a Patron ticket won’t get to experience quite the energy that Ramsey described, Gerber Darr has good news for all who will converge at The Orange Peel at 9:30 p.m. for the night’s final party. The Indigo Ball itself will incorporate aspects from all of the pre-parties, giving non-Patrons a taste of the events they were unable to attend in full.
Those elements will combine with desserts from Marijane Bowman and French Broad Chocolates, whiskey cocktails and beer from the three participating local breweries. Entertainment ranges from aerialists suspended from the ceiling to live painting by Lara Nguyen and Kimi Legermain and stage performances by Nimbus, DJ M.P.Pride, an acro yoga duo and a collaborative performance by Stephanie Morgan and Marley Carroll.
The event’s return is especially important to the AAAC as it’s one of the rare occasions where proceeds goes toward unrestricted funds. Many of the grants the organization receives support specific programs (such as exhibitions or arts and wellness), but funds raised by the color ball go directly to hard-to-fund areas, namely everyday operations and paying staff. “It gives us a safety net,” says Gerber Darr, “so that we can offer the programs, services and resources we do at a top-notch quality and to the best of our ability.”
WHAT: Indigo Ball
WHERE: Various locations
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 9. $75. avl.mx/423