During the second Governor's Awards for the Arts gala banquet and awards presentation at the Hotel John Marshall Saturday night, Frances Lewis, one of the winners, turned to her dinner partners Gov. Charles S. Robb and actor Gregory Peck and told them she wished the cameras recording their every bite and napkin wipe could be shut off for a while. "This is like the movie 'My Dinner With Andre,' " she said, "and I'm afraid my table manners aren't all that great."
"At least they aren't recording what we say," consoled Robb.
"It's more like an Andy Warhol film then," joked Peck
In fact, the evening was not without its surreal and serious aspects as cameras whirred and eyes popped with the glitter of the star-studded event to honor outstanding contributions to the arts in Virginia.
The cameras were there to film the evening's events for regional rebroadcast yesterday so that those who were not among the 630 invited guests, who paid a minimum of $75 a plate -- the higher the donation, which was to benefit the Federated Arts Council, the better the seat -- could see what happened.
Peck, who got his start playing dinner theaters in southwestern Virginia, later agreed that probably not too many artists could afford $75 a plate for dinner. "Sure it would be great if we could bring them all in and they could eat lamb chops with us," he said. "Hopefully some of the money raised tonight will be used to support their work."
Outside the hotel, small groups of artists passed out leaflets announcing several of what they were calling "Lieutenant Governor's Awards for the Arts," including one to the Robb administration for spending on the dinner. Said the leaflet, "never has so much been spent to benefit so few."
But inside, the party went on. Richmond-born author Tom Wolfe served as emcee, as he had at the first Governor's Awards in 1979, and helped hand out awards to the 10 winners.
"It's nice to see the arts being honored in this big, fat, happy decade," Wolfe told the black-tie crowd. He dubbed the '80s the "designer decade" and noted that "we drink designer water, eat designer chocolates and do designer exercises to work off excess calories."
Wolfe praised Robb's efforts to provide "the sort of environment that encourages support for the arts" and declared that "art and artists are doing much better than ever before."
Other celebrities who mingled with the artistic, corporate and political glitterati of the Old Dominion included Thomas Armstrong, director of the Whitney Museum in New York; June Carter Cash and John McCutcheon, country and folk music entertainers; jazz great Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Hodsoll, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique were invited to the event by the Robbs. "They didn't have to talk me into coming. I was one of the original members of the National Endowment for the Arts board and was appointed by Lyndon Johnson. I knew both Chuck and Lynda before they were married," Peck said during dinner.
"We've come a long way from those days when we only had something like $4 million to haggle over and try to make it count for something. Now, there's more than $165 million and a great deal has been done on the federal and state level to improve the lives of artists. Without federal and state support of the arts, orchestras would have withered on the vine and museums would have been forced to close."
Peck added that "we are beyond the time when a congressman will stand up and scream about spending taxpayers' dollars for tap-dancers."
Later in the evening, Barbara B. Serage, managing director of the Fairfax Symphony, commented that "without the support of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors we would not have survived."
Between bites Frances Lewis said, "There is no better way to encourage artists than to buy their work. In the visual arts in particular nothing substitutes for buying the work and displaying it."
None of the award winners received any money but instead were given original sculptures created by Virginia artists. The winners, selected by a panel after screening 1,100 nominations throughout Virginia, included longtime art patrons Sydney and Frances Lewis; master short-story writer Peter Taylor, a professor of English at the University of Virginia for 16 years; opera composer Thea Musgrave, whose works have been presented in two world premieres; composer-educator Undine Smith Moore, a music professor emerita of Virginia State University who has taught such greats as Camilla Williams of the Metropolitan Opera and renowned jazz pianist Billy Taylor; Janette Carter and the Carter Family Fold from southwest Virginia; artist-educator Jewett Campbell, who retired in 1982 after 25 years of teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University; and the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk and the Fairfax Symphony for their contributions as arts institutions. All winners, except Peter Taylor, were present. He was in Atlanta attending the premiere of "The Old Forest," a film based on one of his short stories.
Special awards honoring corporate support of the arts were given to CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. Hays T. Watkins, chairman of the board and chief executive officer, accepted for CSX and John S. Shannon, executive vice president of Norfolk Southern, accepted for his company. They were given awards recognizing that each corporation had given more than $1 million to support the arts in Virginia.
The event, nine months in the planning, was coordinated by the Federated Arts Council (FAC) with the assistance of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. "I'm getting to take an awful lot of credit tonight for the hard work of Laurie Naismith (secretary of the Commonwealth), Adrienne G. Hines (executive director of FAC) and Pam Reynolds (a volunteer). These ladies really did all the work and they deserve the credit," said Robb.