"This," pronounced Corcoran Gallery Director Michael Botwinick, "is the most sophisticated, elegant event for a District organization I have ever seen."
Perhaps it was the large silver stars suspended above the stage at the Pension Building last night, or the tables covered in black and sparkling with glittery confetti, or the spotlights and feathers and fountain. Or perhaps it was the delight human beings take in honoring themselves.
Whatever it was, last night's 650 guests at the Fourth Annual Mayor's Arts Awards seemed as impressed with it all as was Botwinick, cheering the awardees and performers, rising in standing ovations, repeatedly congratulating Mayor Marion Barry for his support of the arts, praising the "Washington arts community," praising Washington in general, punctuating a dance performance with shouts and hollers of appreciation, and joining the Gay Men's Chorus for a rendition of "Happy Birthday" in honor of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts.
"We have now 60 dance companies that are residents here -- that's incredible," said James Backas, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "We have 500 arts groups or organizations in this city. Washington's become very quickly a formidable cultural center and not just because of the things that pass through."
Offering his greetings, Barry commented, using much the same language he had at the awards ceremony two years ago, that in difficult times the arts "give us our spirit."
Singer Todd Duncan, the original Porgy in "Porgy and Bess," was honored for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline. He spoke in slow, deep tones that echoed through the massive hall.
"I would be disingenuous if I said this is the first award I have received," he said. "I have received dozens. But this is my home. This is where I live, so this is very special.
"You know art is nothing that is superficial or artificial or cosmetic . . . This is the very stuff of life of which I am made."
Filmmaker Paul Wagner, whose documentary "The Stone Carvers" won an Academy Award this year, was named Outstanding Emerging Artist. Bernice Johnson Reagon, director of the Program in Black American Culture at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and founder of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was also honored for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline.
"It's really humbling to be in service to a people and a culture and a history that's created in the fire of an inspired struggle for human integrity and against exploitation, racism and discrimination," she said.
Proving that the definition of art in Washington is truly broad, award presenters ranged from American National Theater director Peter Sellars to sportscaster Glenn Brenner. Brenner allowed how "having me here is like inviting Rambo to a love-in," but then defended the choice with the comment, "I once painted my garage."
Sellars, whose manner as always suggested that he was in imminent danger of exploding with excitement, told the crowd, "I'm thrilled to be in Washington. The response has been great and wonderful.
"I think we can do a few things here," he said and giggled as if he and the 650 had entered into a delightful conspiracy.
"It is my pleasure," he continued, the giggles still bubbling up, "to give the award to the outstanding emerging artist -- my favorite kind!"
Other winners of the Fourth Annual Mayor's Arts Awards were:
For excellence in an Artistic Discipline: Mary Day, founder of the Washington Ballet; Lou Stoval, printmaker.
For Excellence in Service to the Arts: The Children's Studio School; The Corcoran School of Art; Warren M. Robbins, founder of the National Museum of African Art; Roger L. Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center; Bart Whiteman, founder and artistic director of the Source Theatre.
Winner of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington's Tony Taylor Award: poet E. Ethelbert Miller.
Winner of the AFL-CIO Arts Service Award: D.C. councilmember Polly Shackleton.