- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

More than 500 ARTrageous — i.e., “crazy about art” — guests of all ages enjoyed live music and hors d’oeuvres while admiring masterworks of painting and sculpture Tuesday night at the recently renovated Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Many people did not attend the museum’s official reopening. This party is for them,” said event co-chair Sydney “Nini” Ferguson, standing in the shadow of Viola Frey’s tall, Picassoesque ceramic titled “Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress” in the Luce Foundation Center, one of several food-drink-music stations set up on the Greek Revival building’s spectacular third floor.

The annual “ARTrageous” event helps underwrite family day, artists’ talks and other free programs. Museum officials declined to disclose how much the event raised, but said the goal is to reach out to a wide range of people, including the young.

“We wanted to involve as many people as possible, so we kept the ticket prices low” at $100, said Mrs. Ferguson, looking rather artrageous herself in a black Oscar de la Renta cocktail number and long lace gloves.

Bree Rogers and three Hill staffer girlfriends fit the target-audience bill to a twentysomething T. Standing in front of a set of Paul Manship bronzes, Miss Rogers, a college art history major, marveled at the surroundings. “This is my first time here and I think it’s amazing. I’m definitely coming back soon,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over Blues Alley’s Jacques Johnson and Friends’ jazzy rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Her advice to the Smithsonian for attracting young people? “Advertise on the Hill.”

Aside from a low entry fee, organizers pulled in the young professional crowd by hiring the Eddie Bruce Band, which played the latest from the Black Eyed Peas and other hip tunes in the massive space (which is acoustically a tad challenged).

Older guests were more impressed by the art than the noisy scene.

“It’s wild,” Bitsey Folger said with a laugh as she hurriedly made her way toward the relative peace of the Luce wing while applauding the redone museum.

“It’s so modern and the open storage is tremendous,” she said of the new conservation center’s ability to display thousands of artworks — ranging from George Catlin’s paintings of American Indian life to Howard Finster’s folk pieces — behind glass instead of keeping them behind closed doors.

“Visitors wouldn’t be able to see any of this with traditional storage,” museum spokeswoman Amy Hutchins noted. “But with this solution we can showcase more than 3,000 additional works of art.”

Art remained the focus of the evening — a situation no doubt enhanced by long lines at the bar, rapidly disappearing food and the unwillingness of more than a half dozen couples to dance at the same time. Small groups tended to break away to enjoy the Jackson Pollocks and Alexander Calders instead.

“I love finding groups of art lovers who have wandered off to the end of a gallery,” museum director Elizabeth Broun said to Smithsonian Women’s Committee member Darlene Lebedev as the latter admired Mr. Calder’s giant, black Nenuphar sculpture.

“We’re still trying to figure out how it can better activate the space,” Ms. Broun added, noting that museum officials are still tweaking the lighting and the placement of art in the historic former U.S. Patent Office where Abraham Lincoln once held an inaugural ball.

Other art lovers there included Sen. John E. Sununu, Riley Temple, Frank and Dawn Saul, Rachel Tinsley Pearson and Dr. William Haseltine.

“Walt Whitman once said this was the noblest building in the city, and there’s something to that,” Mr. Sununu said. “It is really a gem.”

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