The George A. Spiva Center for the Arts wouldn’t be Joplin’s premiere visual arts center without a group of 36 women and their shared passion for local art.

Known as the Friends of St. Avips (Spiva spelled backward) and toiling under the fun motto “We party for art,” the group has but a single function: to raise funds for the arts center at 223 W. Third Street.

And they’ve been doing this kind of thing since the early 1960s.

“As a group, we understand what (Spiva) provide(s) to our entire area, and we are truly happy to do our part to make their jobs a little easier,” said Emily Stanley. “We do this by planning a wonderful ball and art auction — which features some of the areas’ finest artists — creating a fun night where you have the opportunity to support the visual arts.”

In February 1963, 18 women met at the home of Mary Stanley, the brain child of the group and close friend to George Spiva, to discuss how they could create a formal benefit with the sole purpose of providing income to the downtown arts center.

At the time, according to original (and still active member) Maridan Stanley Kassab, the arts center was housed inside a small structure, and a move to a new location was in the works. Kassab told Stanley that the St. Avips Ball idea was viewed as a way “to provide some additional income” for Spiva, though at the time nobody in the group believed or imagined what the ball would eventually grow into or that it would last well into the next century.

The first St. Avips Ball was held in March 1963 inside the venerable Connor Hotel, raising a little more than $1,000. Last year’s Ball raised $79,000. In total, more than $1 million has been raised for the arts center.

This year’s St. Avips Ball, which takes place Friday at the Roxy & Amelie Event Centers in downtown Joplin, is in its 56th year. It is a formal event filled with beautiful outfits and tuxedos. This year’s theme is “Watercolor and Wonder” and Red Onion Cafe will cater the ball while Galaxy Red from St. Louis will provide entertainment. Raffle gift items come from local businesses, including Comeau Jewelry and The Wild Flower. There will also be the traditional art auction.

“I wanted to have a theme really reflect art in some way, and I love the look of watercolor paintings,” Emily Stanley said. “The look of the drippy watercolor paint that’s not too formal, really spoke to me, and I felt that would translate well to the decor for the ball. Loving art, appreciating art, doesn’t mean you must have the talent for creating art.

“I do not come to the arts as someone with any artistic talent, but rather I have a deep appreciation for what artists create and the passion they put into their work, and I see what they add to our community. They truly add a richness which improves where we live and encourages others to make Joplin their home,” she said. “I call back to past conversations I had with recruiters for area businesses. They mentioned visitors would always ask about what the arts — visual, musical, theater — were like in Joplin and if they were supported. A community with a rich and vibrant arts scene is desired.”

The ultimate recipe for the group’s success has three key ingredients that include sponsors, patrons and dedicated members. Speaking of the latter, Stanley said: “The recipe for our success has some key ingredients. I have such a deep appreciation for this group of 36 amazing women. They are givers. They identify where they can help and go do it. I think those qualities are what have always defined our membership and have allowed us to be holding our 56th ball.

“When discussing the ball I keep telling people, ‘You’ll have a wonderful meal, super-fun band, beautiful art (and) just great fun in a contemporary setting.’”