At last year's Washington Project for the Arts auction, those lucky enough to make it into the auction room in the WPA's Seventh Street NW building had to contend with pillars that partially obscured the stage, while the overflow crowd upstairs dealt with a temperamental television hookup.

All that has changed. In the words of Chris Middendorf, owner of the Middendorf-Lane Gallery, the WPA auction has gone from "old and funky" to "slick and professional." And as far as he and the 700 other people at the fifth annual art auction last night at the Old Post Office are concerned, "the change has been for the better."

The crowd, nearly twice the size attracted by last year's event, gathered for a chance to own a De Looper, Berkowitz or Yamaguchi or just to munch chocolate-dipped strawberries and applaud those brave enough to plunge into bidding that often reached into the thousands of dollars. The WPA auction may have moved to posher digs, but it still draws a sizable number of curious observers. Said one of the guest auctioneers, Hirshhorn Museum curator Howard Fox: "We hope to inspire people to become collectors."

Another guest auctioneer, Phyllis Rosenzweig an associate curator at the Hirshhorn, proved particularly inspiring, raising bids and laughter with her description of Kendall Buster's "Frieze Frames -- Line Story" as "one of those rare works you can hang in your kitchen or bathroom." The 18-foot-long, auto body-paint-on-aluminum work went for $3,000, in one of the evening's top sales.

Other big draws were a Leon Berkowitz oil, "Whisper 2," which went for $4,750, a Tom Dineen charcoal at $4,400, and a Willem De Looper acrylic, sold for $3,400. In all, the affair grossed $110,000 from the live and silent auctions, ticket sales, program ads and donations from patrons. In an arrangement instituted at last year's auction to raise the quality of the works on display, 50 percent of each work's price will go to the artist, except for donated works.

The WPA will have no problem spending its newly made wealth. "We have to continue to grow," said executive director Jock Reynolds. "That process may be open to debate, but the reason we have a large budget is so we can increase our services to artists," he said in reference to the resignation last summer of five WPA board members because of concerns that the organization was becoming too institutionalized.

But Reynolds was among friends last night. "This auction sets a difficult standard for the rest of us to follow," said the Corcoran Gallery's Jane Livingston. "As an artist-run space, it's very inspirational," agreed her coworker and fellow guest auctioneer Ned Rifkin. Added De Looper, artist and Phillips Collection curator, "Last year I was impressed, but this year I'm very highly impressed."

Toasted Fox: "Here's to the WPA."