“1995 Odyssey Ball” Chairmen Sandra and Richard W. Freeman Jr. along with artist John T. Scott pictured in front of Scott’s “Spirit Gates” at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Scott designed the ball’s invitation to commemorate the opening of the new “Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy” exhibition. The theme of the “Odyssey Ball” that year was: “Jammin’ and Jazzin’ with Ambassador Satchmo.” The ball was started to raise funds for exhibitions and programming, and now contributes about eight percent of the museum’s operating budget.

When the first “Odyssey Ball” was held in 1966, the New Orleans Museum of Art was still known as Delgado Museum. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Stafford lent their extensive art collection – described as a “mini-museum” covering the history of Western Art – to help raise funds to recover from Hurricane Betsy the previous fall.

A gala was planned for the night before the opening of the exhibition “Odyssey of an Art Collector.” Named after the collection, the “Odyssey Ball” was such a fun and financial success that it became an annual event, and a highlight of the social scene. 

Themes and décor were paired with exhibits; attendees discovered exotic scenes like Moulin Rouge, Marrakesh, a German cabaret, a Russian tearoom or a Japanese garden. For Louisiana-based exhibits, the setting was more familiar: a Carnival masquerade, a K&B diner or, in the case of the 1967 “Porcelain Birds” exhibit, birdcages with live birds from Audubon’s aviary.

Musical performances were always a highlight of the “Odyssey Ball.” Orchestras, including Count Basie and Glenn Miller, were the attractions in earlier decades. Dance bands became popular in the mid-1980s, and from the 1990s on local stars like Deacon John, Allen Toussaint and Kermit Ruffins have been featured. The last decade has included local DJ standouts like Soul Sister and ActionActionReaction. 

While the ball is usually held in November at the museum, there have been a few exceptions. The dates for two balls were changed to accommodate special exhibits: “Treasures of Tutankhamun” in 1977 and “Golden Treasures of Peru” in 1979. A museum expansion during 1991-1992 sent the ball to the Sheraton Hotel and the Lakefront Airport. (The airport party was held in a hanger among vintage aircraft with a “Black Tie / White Scarf” aviation-themed dress code and an “in-flight” menu featuring dishes from around the world.) The only year that hasn’t had a ball was 2005, due to Hurricane Katrina.

The “2021 Odyssey Ball” will be held November 12 and will feature the plaster relief mural “Symbols of Communication” by Enrique Alférez, which was created for The Times-Picayune lobby in 1967.