Do they make white-out for parchment? How does one ignore the fact that the host is conspicuously absent when his name is at the top of the just-so invitation for Washington's newest art museum?

One way is, you act as though recently dismissed American University president Benjamin Ladner's name just isn't there -- never mind if he is best friends with Cyrus Katzen, one of the biggest benefactors in the school's history, the man who donated $20 million for the Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center, the man who was the star of last night's President's Circle Dinner.

"I invited him, but he didn't come," Katzen said last night, looking momentarily dejected amid the swirl of tuxes and gowns in a gallery displaying part of his $5 million gift of art. The Ladners "are great friends. I'm really very sorry about it all," Katzen said.

The museum, a gorgeous thing at 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, opened last night. It was a swell black-tie gala. About 850 very well-heeled donors to the university, arts patrons, artists and friends of the Katzens turned out, nibbling the corn-crusted snapper, sipping the Bel Arbor chardonnay.

But not Ladner, who had put together the $45 million to bring off the museum space and performing arts center, and who had done so much to raise the university's national profile. He was missing because of that rather unfortunate problem with expense accounts, that issue of trustees resigning.

Acting President Neil Kerwin graciously credited Ladner's role in a brief speech during the ribbon cutting, but no other mention of the man was made. Kerwin bristled when asked if the university had asked Ladner and his wife not to come.

"I wouldn't respond to a question like that on a night like tonight," he said.

With that out of the way, we can say that the university pulled off a grand affair from what might have been a squirmy social occasion.

"I think this is going to be Ladner's true legacy," said Jack Ramussen, director and curator of the art museum at the center. "He did so much to get this building done . . . but the university is moving on, and I think that's the right thing."

The complex is a very long, narrow affair (longer than the Kennedy Center); has three performance halls, a three-story, 30,000-square-foot art museum; and houses any number of studios, classrooms and offices.

The layout made for lots of walking last night, the passing conversations floating by, little Washington canapes on a tray:

"He and his wife, they -- "

" -- very sophisticated kind of people -- "

"Did you see the trees upstairs? Fabulous, just -- "

She: "No one thinks the CIA -- "

He: "The CIA was a mess -- "

Ah, here we are in the Abramson Family Recital Hall. Adjunct music professor Matthew VanHoose is on the Steinway grand up onstage. His head is thrown back, blond hair in neat repose, playing Debussy's rolling melody from "Images (oubliees)."

A few people take seats, more step into the small auditorium, holding glasses, look around, smile, ease back out. Seems a shame. The guy can play.

The museum was years in the making. There was neighborhood opposition to developing the site for anything. Something for the law school was envisioned and scrapped. The art museum stalled, too, until, Katzen said, he and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) met with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams several years ago.

"Tom got cute, looked at his watch and said, 'Mr. Mayor, in about 45 seconds this museum and Katzen's money is going to go to Virginia if you don't take it,' " he said last night, relishing telling the story once again. "Then all the problems got cleared up."

It was Katzen's night last night, and, tall, robust, elderly, he clearly enjoyed it -- even if he spoke for four seconds or less during the ribbon cutting. That comes to about $5 million per second, which may be something of a record.

The crowd politely applauded -- it wasn't a boot-stomping, whistling sort of soiree -- and the evening drifted on, elegant, tasteful, leaving things unsaid that, for this evening, seemed safely in the past.

Myrtle and Cyrus Katzen return the applause of the crowd at the opening of the arts center at American University that bears their names.

Neil Kerwin, American University's acting president after the recent dismissal of Benjamin Ladner, at the opening of the arts center.