Portraits From a Very Arty Party

Folk artist Malcah Zeldis chatting with Jan and Charles Rosenack at last night's gala; a twist on contemporary art; and, far left, partygoers in the atrium of the renovated structure.
Folk artist Malcah Zeldis chatting with Jan and Charles Rosenack at last night's gala; a twist on contemporary art; and, far left, partygoers in the atrium of the renovated structure. (Photos By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Here now an overdue party in a very old, very restored, gorgeous hulk of a building that Washington's big-name museum donors waited and waited and waited . . .

. . . and waited for. It's a building the rest of the city thought would forever be surrounded by industrial metal barricades ("Sidewalk Closed"), an inconvenient walk-around between brewpubs and basketball games. Last night, voil?, and a six-hour gala, and a lot of gaga: Thirteen hundred guests (whittled and RSVP'd and regretted down from an original invite list of 7,000) got a chance to finally see the Old Patent Office building as its new self, a handsome Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. They got your presidents, your folk art, your video installations. And, man, the plaster and marble and tiles! It was like HGTV and the Food Network and the History Channel all at once, with blessedly little C-SPAN.

"As pleased as I am about the art," said Eleanor Lewis Harvey, chief curator for the American Art Museum, standing near the museum's F Street entrance while trumpeters serenaded arriving guests and a few sweaty, sidewalk-bound gawkers, "it's really a lot about the building."

She's right. If the museum thing doesn't work out -- it opens to the general public July 1 in a rather big way, albeit no free liquor for you -- then alert the Bridezillas, for this is also one amazing party space.

Renovations began, what -- 43 years ago?

Really, it's only been seven years, just seems longer. Since then, the neighborhood radically changed up and around the 166-year-old building. Harvey remembers when she first worked at the Smithsonian 20 years ago, and the building was next to a triple-X theater. "Now you're arguing with valet parkers instead of vagrants," she said. Now there's a Hooters, an H&M in the former Woodies, the 14-screen movie theater, those $400,000 studio apartments, the Bed Bath & Beyond.

"Our cabdriver didn't know where it was," said guest Aaron Bastion, a specialist in American art for Christie's in New York who came down for the party. (The taxi drivers will most certainly know where the museum is when it opens next week, a publicist assured us. If not, they can attend a special event for taxi drivers on July 5, with their own guided tour.)

With the museum's top floor awash in colorful techno party lights and jaunty plasma-screen displays, and yards and yards of free nosh (look, yay -- those teensy-tiny hamburgers!), the Smithsonian bash nearly had the feel of a Bloomberg afterparty, with free satiny tote bags from corporate sponsor Target on your way out. There wasn't as much readily identifiable star power: The Mondales were around and, we heard, so were the Alitos.

But when you're a museum, the donors are the celebs.

"You walk through the halls and you get goosebumps," said Ferdinand "Terry" Stent, an Atlanta art collector and museum board member who with his wife, Margaret, funds the endowed chair for the American Art Museum's director. He was chatting on the terrace that will be the museum's cafe, overlooking F and Eighth streets NW. "It's just wonderful that this noble house is open. All the lights are on, everyone is here. The renovation is beyond my fondest expectations. . . . It delivers to everyone a national treasure."

Artist Sean Scully stood at the bar on the museum's second floor. In addition to admiring the building, it was the first time he'd seen his 1983 painting "Maesta" since he did it. The original collector who bought it disliked the artist's politics, and sold it to an Australian collector, Scully said, and it disappeared, only to surface with a London dealer and, about three years ago, was bought by the Smithsonian. It's hanging in the contemporary art wing (a sort of American-flagish series of juxtaposed stripes -- hey, you want art reviews, or party reportage?), where the sounds of a jazz quintet echoed off the soaring ceiling. Scully noticed, after getting past the misty nostalgia, a weird water spot on the wall beneath "Maesta."

"You know these old paintings, they get incontinent," he said.

Near Scully's work, Washington's Ken Hakuta (Kids! You know him as Dr. Fad! As seen on the tee-vee!) stood near the enormous "Electronic Super Highway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii," a wry map of the nation built with various sizes of video monitors, the state borders outlined in a rainbow of neon. Each state's screens display a different media montage: Iowa shows men running for president, Oklahoma shows the musical "Oklahoma!," Texas shows the Branch Davidian compound near Waco ablaze, the District is a tiny television showing closed-captioned images of you, right now, watching it.

The piece, created by Hakuta's uncle Nam June Paik, who died in January, hadn't been displayed since Paik first made it in 1995. Hakuta worked with the Smithsonian to reinstall it; the neon was replaced, as were the monitors. "It's really a great piece for Washington," the nephew observed. "It's really about America. And seeing it up like this . . . he really would have gotten a kick out of it."

There is almost too much to get a kick out of. To party and get a fix on the art, to differentiate between the American Art wings and the Portrait Gallery . . . well, there's a reason the bash was scheduled to last till midnight. You could get lost in portraits of generals. Or writers. And certainly, presidents.

Working our way from the Gilbert Stuart portraits of George (and Martha) Washington and quickly breezing through all the commanders in chief, pausing at the abstract Jack and the portrait LBJ despised of himself, then on to the new Bill Clinton. Next to him, the gallery has hung a gilded mirror. Get it? You could be president.

Guests at the party assiduously avoided glimpsing themselves in it and worked their way back toward the bar.

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