Gasps and wows filled the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon on a recent Saturday night. All 150 well-dressed guests seemed appropriately awed — and not just by the art or the opulent setting. They had come for a wedding, the first in the gallery’s history.

The ceremony unfolded in the museum’s intricately carved wooden temple by David Best, erected last year as a place for reflection on loss as part of the “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition. On this night, the structure had been transformed into a happy place, its walls shimmering under a soft light and electric candles flickering on the temple’s altar. Later in the evening, a light show accompanied performances by a drag performer impersonating Tina Turner and Diana Ross, giving the site-specific artwork a clublike feel.

The wedding of Washington residents Steven Mazzola and Jeffrey Akman was both a private celebration and a Smithsonian milestone. The quasi-federal institution changed its events policy this year to allow its 19 museums — and the zoo — to host personal and nonprofit events in addition to corporate parties. The timing worked out well for Mazzola and Akman, who had been together for 10 years before deciding in March that they wanted to get married this fall. Many of the city’s distinct spaces were already booked, but a Smithsonian venue seemed just right for the couple, who collect art and are active in the city’s performing arts scene.

AD
AD

Mazzola used to work at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and he continues to direct productions at In Series, a local organization dedicated to opera and musical theater. Akman, a psychiatrist, is vice president for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at George Washington University.

Collaborating with Mark Chaikowski, a longtime friend and event planner who has produced events at Smithsonian facilities, Akman and Mazzola found their perfect venue in the Renwick’s second-floor Grand Salon.

“To bring our friends into a space with art felt right to us,” Akman said. “The Renwick was perfect for several reasons. We liked the scale, and the temple was still installed. The art in the upstairs galleries is whimsical, colorful. It’s not the old masters at the National Gallery.”

AD
AD

The Smithsonian’s new events policy — a three-year pilot that launched March 1 — will bring in much-needed revenue for the world’s largest cultural organization. The Smithsonian must raise about $500 million in earned revenue and donations each year to supplement its $1 billion annual federal subsidy. Opening about a dozen of its signature spaces — including the historic Arts and Industries Building, the Natural History Museum’s rotunda and the elegant Kogod Courtyard (shared by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery) — for private celebrations such as birthdays, weddings and retirement dinners will help meet its fundraising goals.

“There has been talk (about allowing private events) for the last 20 years” Chaikowski said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for everybody. It’s a good fit for the museums, and for nonprofits, it’s great because people will come to the events because of the wonderful locations.”

The Smithsonian spaces will probably have a limited audience for private events, officials said. The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York hosted two weddings in its garden in August, and a wedding has been booked for the Kogod Courtyard next summer. There have been inquiries about using the Renwick and the National Museum of American History, where event staff hosted event and wedding planners last month. They come with many challenges.

AD
AD

The facilities are only available after the museums close, shortening the normal running time for some events and making preparations difficult. Chaikowski’s crews spent several hours the night before Mazzola and Akman’s reception setting up sound and lighting, and they returned on Saturday at 6 a.m. to do more before the museum opened. Saturday’s event started at 7 p.m. (the museum had closed to the public at 5:30), with a 30-minute ceremony featuring poetry recited by D.C. theater luminary Michael Kahn, a reading from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and songs performed by artists who have worked with Mazzola. A cocktail hour followed, then dinner and dancing until 11:30 p.m.

Everything for the ceremony and celebration had to be brought in — table and chairs, lighting and sound equipment, a temporary kitchen, bars, and a stage for the 15-piece band — and then removed before the museum opened on Sunday morning.

“That’s Burning Man,” Mazzola said, drawing a comparison to the annual desert festival that served as the inspiration for Best’s temple. “It all comes in and it all goes out.”

The Smithsonian also has rules about what drinks are allowed in the gallery (the cosmos were made with white cranberry juice, for example), and red wine could be poured only at the tables.

AD
AD

A private event is also pricey. The Smithsonian charged $25,000 for the event space, according to museum officials. The couple declined to detail other expenses, but Chaikowski said there were more workers — from bartenders to band members to the lighting and sound crews — than there were guests.

During the cocktail hour, guests enjoyed bite-size crab cakes, coconut shrimp and lamb chop “pops” as they roamed the galleries that display signature pieces of the Renwick’s collection, including Wendell Castle’s “Ghost Clock,” Karen LaMonte’s “Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery” and Albert Paley’s “Portal Gates.” Some took photos in front of Larry Fuente’s “Game Fish,” a brightly adorned wall piece that is another Renwick favorite.

Dinner, served in the temple, was corn chowder, green-curry king salmon over kaffir lime rice, and a trio of sorbets. Akman and Mazzola shared their first dance as “Tina Turner” performed “Let’s Stay Together,” a surprise that brought everyone to their feet, with dozens of phones recording the performance.

The evening ended with guests lining the grand staircase as Akman and Mazzola exited to a waiting car, with Tina behind the wheel.

AD
AD