At the National Gallery of Art, not all the art hangs on the wall or stands on a pedestal.
As Joshua Taylor, the legendary late director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, once put it, "I'd never trust an art historian who didn't like to eat." By that judgment, you can certainly trust everybody at the National Gallery -- its staff, corporate sponsors and guests.
J. Carter Brown, director of the Gallery, is the best host in town, in the estimation of many. He roams the world in search of amazing art that will both titillate and educate the public. So with the Gallery's masterpieces-a-week schedule, there's always something to celebrate.
As a Foreign Service wife, Genevra Higginson, the Gallery's director of special events, has lived all over the world herself. And she has inspired a few select Washington caterers to become world-class chefs.
The real artistry is subtly, but closely, matching the dinner (and the amazing press breakfasts) to the art. Higginson not only supervises flower arrangements suggested by the art and chooses tablecloths from the country, but also selects the menus to match. The result is a sophisticated and, literally, worldly delectable art.
A good example is Wednesday's buffet dinner that previewed "The Sculpture of Indonesia" -- the exhibit opens to the public today. Both were paid for by Mobil Corp., which has had important interests in that section of the world for 90 years.
Last week's engraved invitation summoned 400 guests to "a reception and informal dinner" -- not buffet supper, as less magnificent mortals might have written.
Mobil sent staffer Ruby Illi from its Jakarta, Indonesia, office to be sure everything was authentic. She found grocery stores in Washington, in Fairfax and on Wilson Boulevard that had the right peppers and coconut milk as well as spices. And the corporation flew over the latest batik and hand-woven fabrics for the event.
Carol Bloom, spokeswoman for Windows, the caterer, said she had no trouble having the batik made into tablecloths. The Indonesian turquoise bowls and straw baskets were found at Macy's. Henry Dinardo, Windows' owner and chief chef, worked out recipes with Illi, and they cooked up two "tastings" with Higginson. With all the marinating of meat, chopping and sectioning, the food took more than two weeks to prepare. The 1,500 giant tiger prawns were flown in from Indonesia -- "and hardly a one was left," according to Dinardo.
How much did it cost? Bloom said she couldn't say -- "they'd cut my tongue out." The National Gallery said the "grant" from Mobil for the exhibition and the dinner was $1.6 million.
It wasn't easy to get the Washington waiters to wear around their waists the brilliantly colored metallic fabrics commonly seen on partying men in Indonesia. But such is the power of management: The waiters did, and the party was handsomer for it. Many of the guests bedecked themselves in exotic costumes -- not all from Indonesia -- to celebrate. Tati Suriati Ramly, wife of the Indonesian ambassador, in a blue top and green and gold skirt, was not the only model for the country's creativity in textiles. Judi Achjadi, an expert on costumes, wore a red and gold hand-woven dress from West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Kit Sieacord's lace coat was from Nigeria. Dancer Cahyo Palembang, from South Sumatraj, wore the traditional sarong and jacket. Portrait painter Lisa Jorgenson had on a Kenyan tribal dress. Rare-book expert Claire Baines wore a red and gold dress made in London from an Indian sari. With her, Andrew Robinson, Gallery senior curator, almost wore his embroidered Kurta shirt, but lost his nerve.
The music was as exotic as the food and dress. The gamelan orchestra from the Indonesian Embassy played on a dais outside the exhibition. The company is made up of staff members of the embassy, language teachers and a few Americans, some said to have learned the techniques while in the Peace Corps.
The flowers, Dendrobian orchids, in pots on the tables, came from the Gallery's own south-facing hothouses. The huge lilies and fronds in vases so tall as to remind one of Jack in the Beanstalk, were designed by Ted Huffcut of Nosegay Florists.
Oh yes, what was on the menu? Passed hors d'oeuvres: Tahu Isi (stuffed tofu), Perkedel Jagung (crab, shrimp and corn fritters), Satay Pentul (ground beef satay) and Lumpia Semarang (spring rolls). On the buffet tables were: Nasi Tumpeng (celebration rice), Rendang Daging (Sumatran spicy beef), Sambal Goreng Udang (shrimp with vegetables), Ikan Acar Kuning (fish in yellow sauce), Bakmi Goreng (Indonesian fried noodle), Perkdel (potato cakes), Kering Tempe (crispy tempe and nuts), Serundeng Daging (coconut and beef), Gado-Gado (Indonesian salad with peanut sauce), Satay Campur (assorted beef, lamb and chicken satay), Sayur Lodeh (vegetables simmered in coconut milk), Ayam Rica-Rica (Manadonese-style spicy chicken), Ayam Pangang (barbecued marinated chicken), Gulai Kambing (lamb curry) and Sayur Orak-Arik (sauteed assorted vegetables).
On the tables for 10 were the condiments: Sambel Kecap Manis (sweet soy with chopped chilies), Acar Timun (pickled cucumber, carrot and onion relish), Acar Nanas (pineapple relish), Saos Asan Pedas (sweet and sour sauce) and Sambal (chopped chili peppers).
On the dessert buffet: Klaaper Tart (individual coconut flan), Ketan Hitam (black rice pudding and coconut milk), Pisang Goreng (fried bananas -- Illi complained that in Washington she could find only two kinds of bananas, whereas back home she could chose from 25), Dadar Gulung (small coconut-stuffed crepes), Es Apokat (avocado and coffee ice cream), passion fruit, mango and pineapple sherbets, and assorted fresh fruits. And to go with Sumatran coffee and Javanese tea, dessert candies on the tables included candied ginger, pineapple, papaya and mango.
Oh, yes. The sculpture was magnificent too.