The women in their linen suits and silk dresses crowded into the French Impressionist room of the Phillips Collection to catch a glimpse of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush at the podium.
Edna Jones, president of the women's committee of the Washington Performing Arts Society and organizer of this reception for volunteers in the arts, thanked Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Bush for coming.
"We do have a little token gift . . ." Jones said, turning to the two women.
"It's a Cezanne," Bush piped up, straight-faced.
The 200 women in the room burst into delighted laughter.
"I'm sorry," said Jones, smiling. "Our budget wouldn't take it. We're a volunteer organization."
Edna Jones and the women's committee of the WPAS began planning yesterday's mid-morning reception for Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush well before the Reagans came to Washington in January.
"This is their social introduction to the arts community," said Marion Dockery, associate director of the Cultural Alliance. Specifically, the event was intended as an opportunity for the two women to meet volunteers from many of Washingtion's major arts institutions, including the WPAS, the Phillips Collection, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera Society, the Washington Ballet, Arena Stage, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Art Barn, the Capitol Children's Museum, the Smithsonian and the Friends of the Kennedy Center.
"They said they wanted to mingle with people," said Jan Kendall of the WPAS staff. So mingle they did for an hour or so, getting a little tour of the museum's new wing, given by Phillips director Laughlin Phillips. Guests squeezed into the room, and a watchful Phillips staffer gently guided away one guest who was standing precariously close to a Van Gogh.
The quiet social tea began at 11 a.m. only hours before the shooting incident outside the Washington Hilton in which President Reagan and several others were injured.
"I don't think you'll find any political statements being made here about the proposed cuts to arts funding," Dockery said. Indeed, the issue of President Reagan's proposed 50-percent cuts in finding to the National Endowment for the Humanitites didn't even come up, "I thought someone would bring it up," said Gloria Cohen, head of volunteers for Arena Stage. "Even in a joke. But it's just too sensitive an issue."
After remarks by Laughlin Phillips, a cohost of yesteday's reception, and Patrick Hayes of the WPAS, Barbara Bush was introduced.
"One wonderful thing I've learned is when your leader [Nancy Reagan] is here, you keep your remarks very, very short," said Bush to laughter from the guests. "And I try not to be so fresh."
Bush told the group that "public service and volunterism are the rent you pay for living on this wonderful earth."
Nancy Reagan followed her, saying "Barbara, your leader's going to make remarks as short as yours. I, too, have been a volunteer for many, many years. Obvioulsy, we have a tremendous interest in the arts. After you've been involved in volumteerism you do have a feeling you're 10 feet tall. I'm a big believer in volunteer work. I think we may have gotten away from it a bit. It gives you such a wonderful feeling of satisfaction. And you do so much good."
After remarks, both women left. They did get token gifts -- a crystal powder container for Nancy Reagan and a crystal serving dish for Barbara Bush. And each got a copy of the book, "Duncan Phillips and His Collection," by Marjorie Phillips. But no Cezannes.