- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

"I see it with new eyes; it's a whole new experience," a pleased and smiling Robert H. Smith said at last Wednesday's gala preview dinner to mark the opening of the new sculpture galleries at the National Gallery of Art.
What else can the owner of 50 world-class sculptures say when he sees his collection normally contained within eight private rooms as the temporary centerpiece of a minimuseum 24,000 square feet in size? Mr. Smith, who also is National Gallery president, added that he never before had seen the sculptures in one place.
He was roundly feted for his "dedication" and "connoisseurship" by gallery DirectorRusty Powell III, who called the collection of European bronzes "virtually unique in the world."
There were plenty of other reasons for the celebratory feast, one of just three elaborately titled Andrew W. Mellon Dinners, held in honor of the museum's late founding donor, to have taken place in Mr. Powell's 10-year directorship. Such occasions occur only, he said, "when there is a major reason to celebrate."
More than 900 works of art are arranged in an eclectic display throughout the newly renovated rooms on the ground floor of the National Gallery's West Wing. They include Edgar Degas' famous wax and mixed-media sculptures of dancers, Chinese porcelains, rare books of drawings and even some 18th-century French furniture a mix of periods and materials shown in galleries that were almost completely redone to create entirely new rooms. Ceilings were lifted; moldings and floors were installed; vaulting was added.
"The biggest challenge was making the gallery seem as though it always had been here, knowing it was to be a permanent space," said Mark Leithauser, the gallery's chief of design, who oversaw the four-year installation process.
"I was hired almost 28 years ago in an office over there, where the receiving line is. A very dark space, I recall, with lower ceilings and Venetian blinds." Ceilings have been raised to 18 feet, and light pours in freely from the windows.
"Sculpture loves light," Mr. Powell reminded the assembled throng at dinner, after which guests heard Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, an ex-officio gallery trustee, praise the new space.
A classy event deserves a classic meal, and about 300 guests weren't disappointed with a rich menu white-truffle-and-lobster risotto, crown roast of lamb, apricot charlotte russe that was as colorful as the display of delphiniums, roses and hydrangeas found on tables and in the fountain areas.
One needed a genealogical chart to keep track of the many members of the decidedly low-key Mellon clan who attended the dinner. Seward Prosser Mellon, the son of Richard King Mellon and president of the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation, spoke of his family's pleasure in underwriting much of the new galleries' installation costs. (Richard King Mellon was Andrew Mellon's nephew.)
Russell G. Byers Jr., the son of the late Constance Mellon (who once was married to the late J. Carter Brown), was seen, along with Virginia Warner, the granddaughter of Paul Mellon; and Lavinia Currier, the granddaughter of Ailsa Mellon Bruce.
Also on the very gilt-edged guest list: Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Teresa Heinz and Sen. John F. Kerry, artist Frank Stella, architect I.M. Pei, Calvin and Jane Cafritz, Bill and Buffy Cafritz, Robert and Louisa Duemling, Roger and Vicki Sant, Spanish Institute Director Immaculada de Habsburgo, Albert and Shirley Small, and the ambassadors of France, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Mexico and Italy.

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