The thing about art parties is this: The farther you get from the exhibited artist, the farther you get from talk of the arts. Two feet say, will still get you Monet, Ten feet, maybe gossip from SoHo. Twenty? Real estate and the blond by the door.

Last night's opening at the Phillips Collection for artist Lois Mailou Jones was no break in tradition.Downstairs near her exhibit, lots of art teachers, professors and students talked about technique, structure, light and feeling. Upstairs near the bar, lawyers and politicians talked about closet space, roommates, parties in Georgetown, walking the dog, and other household affairs.

"So what is your next project?" lawyer Ernest Raskauskas asked friend Diana Bieliauskas.

"I don't have a next project," she responded.

"You know," he finished, "mine is just to get my laundry done."

Some 300 people eventually made it to the party, but it took a while. Most didn't show up until 6:30, an hour and a half into the opening.

"You know what I think part of it is," said Anne O'Donnell, a museum aide, "is they used to serve hard liquor at these openings and they don't anymore." That was theory one. For theory two, she offered: "There's something about coming early. People don't like to be surrounded by all this empty space. Somehow, it makes them feel better if they're packed in."

The artist, dressed in filmy floorlength purple and a white orchid, spent the slow part of the night looking at paintings that have become favorite memories in canvas and oil.

"Oh, look," she said nodding at her blue-and-sand oil called "Indian Shops -- Gay Head" (1940). 'It takes me back to the first days when I began painting on Martha's Vineyard. I used to paint in a little village called Menemsha . . . I remember how the wind was blowing my canvas, but I stayed because I wanted to catch the light."

Later, Jones was too surrounded by well-wishers and red roses to be sentimental. Among the crowd was James Wells, the printmaker; Warren Robbins, director of the Museum of African Art; Star Bullock, chairman of Howard University's art department; Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and David Clarke, D.C. City Councilman.

Clarke, who quickly established himself as "not an arts connoisseur," said he was nonetheless looking for a little something to hang in his office. He also claimed his interest in art is "an embryonic one -- both in terms of newness of interest and littleness of money."

Lots of local artists also showed up, many of whom had a long evening ahead of them. "There are several openings tonight," said artist Alice Mavrogordato, who was planning to go to all of them. "It's like bar-hopping."