- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

Blini, Russian caviar and plenty of Stolichnaya played a central role when Hillwood Museum & Gardens home of the most comprehensive collection of 18th-century and 19th-century Russian imperial art outside of the motherland celebrated its 25th anniversary at the residence of Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov on Jan. 24.
"Hillwood was Mrs. Post's great gift," Mr. Ushakov said after encouraging guests to try the Russian delicacies. "You can feel the Russian spirit there."
Hillwood, which sits on 25 acres bordering Rock Creek Park in Northwest, was opened to the public in 1975, two years after the death of its owner, cereals heiress and decorative arts collector Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Mrs. Post had initially asked the Smithsonian Institution to assume control of the estate and maintain its 16,000 pieces of art after her death, but the Smithsonian decided against it for budgetary reasons and returned the lavish property to a nonprofit foundation.
"The board of family members took a shot at running a museum. They didn't have to, but they felt that's what their mother and grandmother would have wanted," said museum Director Frederick Fisher, one of the speakers at the anniversary celebration.
The foundation started out by investing about $10 million, plus proceeds from the subsequent sale of Mar-a-Lago, Mrs. Post's Palm Beach winter residence, to run the museum and gardens. The investments grew over the years, and Hillwood's current annual operating budget is about $8 million.
The complex has been renovated and updated several times. The most recent $2 million project involved a Japanese Garden, which will open to the public this spring.
While other museums experienced a drop in attendance after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hillwood has maintained a strong showing, with visitors approaching the cap of 65,000 permitted each year (attendance is limited to 250 a day, and reservations are required).
Not quite as many people attended the anniversary celebration, but among the more than 200 guests at the ambassador's residence were former Rep. James Wadsworth Symington and Sylvia Symington, Ina Ginsburg, Allison LaLand, Suzanne Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, Finlay and Willee Lewis and Esther Coopersmith, plus Hillwood staff and dozens of contributors.
Aside from the Russian food and vodka, guests were treated to chamber music by the Sunrise Quartet in the renovated second floor of the residence, whose walls and moldings are painted in gold leaf and adorned in Russian art.
Mrs. Post's own passion for Russian art started in the 1930s when she lived in Moscow with her third husband, U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies.
During the 1920s and '30s, the Soviet regime had started selling off imperial and church treasures to help fund the new country's industrialization and infrastructure, and Mrs. Post was allowed to buy the nucleus of what soon became a collection of worldwide repute.
Mr. Ushakov said he mourned the loss of his nation's patrimony but admitted that the precious icons, jewels, porcelain and portraits were in good hands at Hillwood, which he described as a "mecca for Russian imperial art." His personal favorite among the collection is a portrait of Catherine the Great "and, of course, the Faberge eggs."
"It's a pity they left Russia, of course, but they are preserved and displayed so well at Hillwood," his wife Svetlana added, noting that whenever she and her husband have visitors from Moscow, they take them to Hillwood, and they are very impressed.
Mr. Ushakov introduced and welcomed Mrs. Post's granddaughter Ellen MacNeille Charles, who is the president of the board of trustees at Hillwood, with the traditional greeting of bread and salt.
"My grandmother would have been so happy with this evening. She always spoke with great fondness about the Russian people when it wasn't popular to do so even during the McCarthy era," Mrs. Charles said.
"She fell in love with Russian art. Hillwood was her way of sharing her collection with the world."


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