"You know what?" Austin Kiplinger asked cheerfully, looking up at the cavernous atrium of the Corcoran. "I haven't heard a whole lot about art here."

Ah, but that was not the purpose of this 25th-anniversary black-tie ball, the Corcoran Ball, the social gala of the spring season, for which some 1,200 tickets (at $125 a piece) were sold so quickly that even some venerable donors to the Corcoran had to be turned away when their requests came too late.

The proceeds may not support the Corcoran entirely, but they are an important source in financing the next year's exhibits.

Besides, where else can you dance the night away past some of the best of contemporary art even as dinner, at tables blossoming with longstemmed flowers, is being served?

"Where's the orchestra?" asked Richard Helms, former director of the CIA, over salad. He was dissatisfied with only quiet strains of music from a few musicians on the main floor. "They're supposed to be playing during dinner."

"It was really terrific in the '60s," said board member Hugh Jacobsen. "After Lester Lanin, they had switched to acid rock. It really pulled people out on the floor."

What? These elite of Washington society? Or, as one guest said, "That's trustees and fossil city," pointing to a typical VIP group assembled for cocktails.

"That's why I like to come to this," whispered another well-placed guest, "These people really let their haid down at this."

Among the guests strolling through were board president David Lloyd Kreeger, his wife Carmen ("I did the landscaping outside. Can't you tell the improvement?"), Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) and Sen. Claiborn Pell (D-R.I). The latter watch over the federal arts agencies in committees in their respective bodies of Congress.

And, of course, philanthropist Armand Hammer -- the Corcoran's fairy godfather of sorts -- dropped by, whisked in by private plane from Mexico.

"I had a wonderful time with President Jose Lopez Portillo," said Hammer, president of Occidental Petroleum Corp., who last year donated enough money to the Corcoran to renovate the auditorium and make admission free for the rest of us. Hammer asked his associate to give a reporter his copy of a Mexico City newspaper article on Hammer's trip. "But it's the only one I have," the man said to Hammer.

"Go get another," Hammer said nonchalantly and then grinned.

Also there were some local officials like Mayor Marion Barry and D.C. Arts Commission executive director Mildred Bautista.

Sometimes at such affairs local officials are underrepresented and, some would argue, under-invited.

"I've always been invited," said Barry, "even when I didn't fit this social class. I always had friends who came to this."

Bautista sat at a table of 10 that included Delano Lewis, assistant vice president for public affairs at C&P Telephone and outgoing board president of the Cultural Alliance. "We're the U.N. table," quipped Bautista, looking at her dinner companions. "We have Chinese, Filipinos, French -- and Kansas City here."