Bringing Back The Ball

Laura Benson Jones and Woo Speed McNaughton. Photos by Clay Cook.

By Remy Sisk

For years, the Speed Art Museum was renowned for its annual Speed Art Museum Ball, its largest annual fundraiser and most sumptuous formal affair. Following the museum’s three-year closing for a $60 million renovation and expansion, the event was hosted in 2016 as the Speed Art Museum Opening Gala, celebrating the grand reopening of the museum. The 2017 iteration of the event was also branded as the Speed Art Museum Gala, but this year, the grand event is going back to the ball. Led by Co-Chairs Laura Benson Jones and Woo Speed McNaughton and a planning committee of dedicated gentlemen from around the community and beyond, the 2018 Speed Art Museum Ball will return to a seated dinner format and re-solidify the Speed Ball as the preeminent event of Louisville society.

The Speed Ball, which will take place March 3, 2018, will be held at the same time that the exhibit “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism” will be on display at the museum, which, as Speed Art Museum Interim Director Stephen Reily points out, is particularly appropriate given the Ball’s two women co-chairs. “The Speed Ball is going to take place during this blockbuster exhibit, and I made a plan with our curators to extend that into a long season of celebrating women at the Speed to show at the beginning of the year coupled with works from our permanent collection,” Reily relates. “So Laura and Woo took this idea—and the idea that the Speed is both 90 years old and 1 year old—to let the Ball express that.”

Stephen Reily, Interim Director.

As this acclaimed exhibit will be able to be seen during the event, Jones elaborates that there is something of an unofficial theme to the Speed Ball.  “There is a soft theme of celebrating women,” she says, “celebrating your mother, your wife, your daughter, your friend, your neighbor, a woman that’s meant something to you. And we realized this might be a really great opportunity to lift up all those women in your life.”

But it is not just Jones and McNaughton who are pulling off Louisville’s party of the year. There’s also a robust committee of men supporting them and ensuring every detail of the Ball goes off without a hitch. For example, Patrick McLane, who works in corporate finance, has been involved with volunteering at the Speed for years. McLane is looking forward to the revamped Ball and even more so to seeing it elevated like never before, thanks in part to the leadership’s commitment to pulling in planning committee members from outside of Louisville.

“I think this year they have invested a lot of effort in bringing people in from outside the city,” McLane affirms. “And those of us who have been at the museum for a while have been cultivating a relationship nationally to put the museum in the spotlight. And I think with the guest list and Laura’s effort to involve people from other cities, we are successfully positioning the museum on a national level.”

Indeed, committee member Richard Garner, who works in consulting, is a transplant from Washington, D.C., and emphasizes that the Speed Art Museum is a genuine treasure and consequently deserves to be celebrated as such. “There are more museums than you can image in a city like Washington, and moving to some place like Louisville, there’s concern that you’re going to leave some of those things behind,” he admits. “But the Speed is an absolute gem. It’s not every city this size that can boast this type of museum, and I don’t know if the people here really appreciate how special that is. I think this whole celebration is about creating that awareness and further making this community appreciate what we have and how lucky we are.”

The Speed Art Museum is of course rightly renowned for its locally unparalleled art collection, but it is so much more than a space to see spectacular works of art. Its educational facet has incredible impact with a resounding significance. Committee member and former U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Rob Givens remembers being mesmerized by the museum when he first visited as a child.

“The Speed Art Museum has always been a kind of representation of how you can do something through different experiences in your education that make an impact on you,” Givens emphasizes. “There are so many negative perceptions of Kentucky, and we all have to do what we can to beat those down. The Speed Art Museum is certainly one of those things. People don’t realize what they’re going to walk into and see when they come visit. Anything we can do to help that is great. Plus, you know what other lives can we touch? There’s a number of youth out there that could use a different path, and hopefully by getting education out within the state and the city, maybe that will have some sort of impact.”

But the magnitude of impact the museum has on the community cannot sustain itself; rather, it requires the hard work of each of these committee members to make it continue, as put forth by committee member and artist/gallery owner Trace Mayer: “This is another way to appreciate and help problem solve from a different direction that’s going to hopefully be at least as effective as it has been before, especially for the long-term goals of the museum because obviously the sustainability is what everybody’s looking for as it does continue to reach out and inspire others within the community and create a sanctuary that is much needed.”

Speed Ball Committee: (Pictured) Trace Mayer, Stephen Reily, Patrick McLane, Robert Givens and Richard Garner. (Not pictured) John Alagia, John Bajandas, Owsley Brown III, Todd Klein, John McCarthy, Andy Vine, Woodford Webb and Ron Wolz.

Bringing all of these deeply important aspects as mentioned by the planning committee members to the forefront of the minds of the community is the Speed Ball, an occasion that annually re-emphasizes the vitality of the museum. And as the event will be returning to the Ball format for the first time since reopening, Co-Chairs Jones and McNaughton are especially looking forward to the early spring affair.

“Now that we’ve returned to this interesting format of the dinner in the galleries,” explains Jones, “a friend of mine said, ‘You know, definitely this is a great time to bring my friends in from out of town because it’s not the Derby, but it’s kind of like the Derby because it’s a big Kentucky experience.’ And only in Kentucky can you have this kind of beautiful evening with your friends in these stunning galleries listening to this incredible music, dancing the night away and really celebrating life in a way that we typically don’t get to do often. You know, we have the first Saturday of May, but we can also have that first Saturday of March, and we hope that people will think about inviting their friends and their family and their colleagues from outside Louisville.”

Jones was raised in Louisville and has been going to the museum all her life. Meanwhile, McNaughton is the great-great-great granddaughter of Hattie Bishop Speed and JB Speed and thus carries the foundational history of the Speed in her very name. Together, these two women have formed a truly remarkable team that is well equipped to take on the challenge of hosting the 2018 Speed Art Museum Ball.

“We’ve known each other our whole lives and we have a lot of the same interests in art and design and creativity,” explains McNaughton. “But we make a good team because we bring two very different specifics to this. I brought Laura’s name up and said she would be a wonderful person to work with and let’s see if we can get her, let’s see if she’ll say yes because she has a lot of talents and works with other arts organizations. And my devotion really comes with the Speed, but I’ve wanted to put that energy into this building.”

And what that energy will yield come March will without question be nothing short of stunning. Featuring a sit-down dinner by Wiltshire Pantry in the galleries, it’s sure to be the best edition of the Speed Ball yet. Jones in fact points out that the decision to revert to the previous format was not a decision made in a closed room but rather an obvious choice based on feedback. “It wasn’t just an I – we got it from the community, this, ‘Please, let’s go back to a ball, let’s go back,’” she maintains. “And then I mentioned we should go back to the original spirit of what the ball was, which is a thank you. And really it’s not trying to make it any more; it’s trying to make it grand in its own right because we’re having dinner in a museum that is all of ours as a community.”

McNaughton echoes Jones’ assertion that the event is not a fundraiser – yes, it raises funds in its ticket sales, but it is much more than that. “It’s not a fundraiser,” McNaughton contends. “It’s a thank you. It’s a social event, a beautiful dinner party to say thank you to the community-at-large for coming in here every day and every week and supporting us.”

The passion shared between the two is eminently evident, which of course has made them the perfect pair for this project. “We got the two best co-chairs ever,” Reily enthuses. “I couldn’t be luckier because Woo just keeps us grounded in the spirit of the place and the spirit of what this party is meant to express, and Laura keeps us pushing beyond our limits and making these amazing connections.”

In addition to the concept planning and overall development, there is also a host of logistical elements that need to be considered for the Ball, which is where Speed Art Museum Special Events Coordinator Evan McMahon comes in. “Having the dinner in these galleries is a challenge as you can imagine,” he says. “We have to protect the art first and foremost so we are having to meet those challenges, but we know we are going to give people a beautiful evening. We’re going to be in a place where they can look at art and the art will be safe so you get the best of both worlds. Outside the dinner, we’re going to be having all kinds of fun in the new north building.”

Without question, the 2018 Speed Art Museum Ball will be a celebration to remember. With two passionate co-chairs at the helm and a team of dedicated individuals rounding out the planning committee, the event will undoubtedly be a monumental success. And at the end of the day, it’s about much more than the event – it’s about sustaining a critical institution for our community and illustrating gratitude to those who embrace it every day. “This is a museum that is a life changer for the youth of our community, for the youth of our state and for the youth of our region,” Jones asserts. “But this museum is also an economic development engine for our state and for our region and it’s really important for the people of our community who care about our community and care about economic development to stand up and say yes when it comes to the Speed Art Museum.”

Photo by Tim Valentino.

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