When the Corcoran Gallery of Art is split up, what will become of its opulent annual ball?

April 27

The Corcoran Ball has always been old-fashioned and proud of it. No speeches, no silent auction, no celebrities.

In their place: a classic dinner dance with music, candlelight and priceless art. On Friday, the limestone Beaux-Arts building, home to the museum since 1897, was transformed with 12,000 flowers and elegant tables set in each gallery. This year’s stunner was the Little Mantel Room, an intimate space paneled with dark wood and decorated with lace, tulips and roses — a Dutch Master painting come to life.

There’s no question the ball is Washington’s most beautiful social event. The real question is whether this old-fashioned gala will survive in the Corcoran’s new era.

After the financial chaos that defined it for so many years, the private art gallery in February announced a partnership with George Washington University and the National Gallery of Art. The university will take over the building and the Corcoran’s art college, the NGA gets the $2 billion art collection, and what remains of the Corcoran will be a small nonprofit entity. The final papers are about to be signed, but details of the deal have not been made public.

So the 750 guests at the 59th annual black-tie ball were both excited and, understandably, nervous about the future.

“I walked in tonight and the rain had cleared . . . and that gave me a sense of optimism,” said artist Bill Dunlap, a regular at the party for 40 years. “But it’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy I feel right now.” He wasn’t alone; other guests whispered that they had come because it might be the last ball.

Not according to the Corcoran’s Women’s Committee, the grandes dames of the museum for the past six decades. “It’s easy to tell bad stories about the Corcoran — they’ve made it very easy,” said committee chair Molly Rolandi. “But we’re always here. We never give up. And we never give up on the ball.”

It was, and remains, a legacy of the 1950s, when the all-volunteer Women’s Committee was founded. The first ball, in 1956, was called a “Waltz and Polka Party” and raised $800; the women hosted private dinners at home, then the guests went to the museum for dancing and a midnight supper.

Committee members were identified on the invitations by their husbands’ names — standard practice at the time and a tradition the committee carries on to this day. “It is something of a throwback,” Rolandi admits. “When this started, a lot of the women were stay-at-home moms. Their contacts in the business community came really through their husbands, and so it was a great benefit to have the husbands’ names on the invitation.”

The gala quickly became a must for Washington’s social set, despite the roller coaster of the Corcoran’s finances. David Lloyd Kreeger, an international businessman and art collector who went on to found his own eponymous museum in Washington, served as the Corcoran’s president for almost 20 years and drew top donors, diplomats and political figures to the ball. Billionaire Armand Hammer was the superstar in 1979 after his then-stunning $1.15 million donation, which allowed the gallery to drop its $1.50 admission fee. The museum struggled, then rallied. By 2001, the ball celebrated “The Golden Age of the Corcoran” — a new Gilded Age, which boasted a $30 million donation from AOL executives Robert Pittman and Barry Schuler. It was the largest single donation in the gallery’s history, earmarked for a planned addition to the museum by architect Frank Gehry.

“Its future is brighter than it’s ever been,” said Bitsey Folger at the 2001 ball. “It’s thrilling.” Just six years later, the controversial addition had been scrapped and the Corcoran was trying to reinvent itself yet again; last year, the museum’s fate rested on a proposed partnership with the University of Maryland that never took place.

Through it all, the Women’s Committee has put on the gala, a constant in an unstable institution. No other local ball is held in an art museum, and the decor is designed to be a visual feast: Each room has a different design, with tablecloths that complement the art, expensive china and crystal rented to match the linens, and over-the-top floral displays. Committee members set the tables and glue felt tips on the 3,000 chair legs to keep them from making noise on the marble floors. The decor is a secret until the night of the ball, when donors wander through the galleries, oohhing and ahhing over the combination of money and good taste.

This year, the 750 guests included developer Til Hazel, Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, D.C. Council member Jack Evans, and former White House social secretaries Ann Stock and Capricia Marshall — but none of the Supreme Court justices, senators or ambassadors who graced the party in the ’80s and ’90s.

Tables sold for $10,000 to $50,000, and individual tickets went for $600 each; admission to the after-party, called Club Corcoran — an effort to draw in 20-somethings — went for $125. The ball raised $600,000, and about $400,000 of that will allow the Corcoran to digitize its art collection.

The good news? Plenty of support from the Corcoran’s new partners at GW and the NGA; top donors to the ball included deep-pocketed patrons such as Sachiko Kuno and Ryuji Ueno, Connie Milstein, Sharon Rockefeller, Roger and Vicki Sant and billionaire art collectors Mitch and Emily Rales.

“It’s one of the most tastefully decorated, most beautiful, lush, gorgeous events I’ve been to in Washington,” said Emily Rales. “It’s really, really amazing.” It was her first Corcoran ball, and her husband hasn’t attended for years — so their presence Friday was a big deal. “We’re fully supporting what the Corcoran will stand for — both today and in the future,” Mitch Rales said. “This is still going to be a great institution.”

But no one really knows how this three-legged partnership is going to work, how fundraising will be divided or under which organization the ball will continue.

“The Corcoran, NGA and George Washington all completely recognize the importance of the ball as part of the social fabric of Washington,” said Lauren Stack, the Corcoran’s chief operating officer. “There’s a lot of support, respect and understanding about that — and no one wants to see it go away.”

The party has always been the committee’s baby, with the museum providing only back-office support. The women plan the event, raise the money and decide where the proceeds go. The success has always depended on an exacting aesthetic, an unpaid army of volunteers and the generosity of vendors. “It’s a labor of love,” said florist Jack Lucky, who has teamed up with the caterer Occasions and event-rental company Perfect Settings for 17 years to create the annual extravaganza. Less a moneymaker than a showcase, it’s still an expensive party to produce, and that could be a problem in the future.

“Galas are wonderful, but they’re not necessarily the most efficient way of raising a fundraising dollar,” said Stack. To wit, the famed white-tie Symphony Ball, one of the grandest of old Washington’s social events, has been reduced to a supper dance that follows the symphony season opener.

Neither GW’s nor the NGA’s spokesman could address the future of the ball, because all the details are still being hammered out.

“There are a lot of unknowns for us,” said Nelson Carbonell, chairman of GW’s board of trustees, who attended the party Friday. The gala has to be part of a larger strategy: “I don’t know what we’re going to need to raise money for, so we need to be smart about how we go about doing that.”

But the Women’s Committee has already announced a date for the 2015 ball: April 17. It will be the 60th annual gala. The event takes about a year to plan — so they’re moving ahead, even with all the uncertainty.

“It would be a great marketing tool to roll out the new era as we move from the Corcoran we were to the Corcoran we will become,” said Rolandi. All three parties “are working toward the same goal. So I think our chances of making it work are 99 percent.”

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