- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ spring gala had a special lavishness that was appropriate considering the event’s “Jewels of the Hermitage” theme. The black-tie benefit Friday, which drew 450 patrons at $400 apiece, was tied to the museum’s current exhibition, “An Imperial Collection: Women Artists From the State Hermitage Museum,” on view through June 18.

Director Judy L. Larson called the Russian show “one of the most complex exhibitions we’ve ever organized.” The works on display, by such little-known but masterful artists as Christina Robertson and Angelica Kauffman, are part of the grand collection in St. Petersburg that was begun by Catherine the Great. The show is meant, in part, to mark the 300th anniversary this year of St. Petersburg’s founding.

Gala guests included Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist; Secretary of Commerce Don Evans; Svetlana Ushakova, wife of Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov; Texas philanthropist Caroline Rose Hunt; and Elizabeth Sackler. Marcia Carlucci and Elaine Cole were the event’s co-chairwomen.

Women arrived in elaborate gowns, passing through galleries filled with portraits of 18th- and 19th-century Russian royalty depicted in even more elaborate gowns. It had a far fancier feel than last year’s nature-themed gala, “The Soul of the Landscape,” guests said as they milled around the tempting array of offerings on the silent-auction tables.

The NWMA was helped tremendously by its exceptionally generous board members, who each donated items valued at $1,000 or more to the “board boutique” area of the auction. The goodies included a one-week stay at a luxury penthouse in Athens, Redskins club seats, Tiffany earrings and a Valentino evening gown.

Amid the bidding was a giant ice sculpture of an imperial Russian eagle, surrounded by icebound bottles of banana-, lemon- and raspberry-flavored vodkas.

“They did not call me ‘the great’ when I was alive,” declared Catherine the Great — played by actress Mary Ann Jung, who had donned a hoop skirt and white wig for the part. “I was known as Empress of all the Russia,” the ersatz empress added grandly (before saying that she already had played both Queen Elizabeth in Virginia and Clara Barton in Annapolis earlier the same day).

The dinner had a Russian twist as well, with smoked fish and sevruga caviar, beef stroganoff and strawberries Romanov. Proceeds from the festivities, including an estimated $60,000 raised in the silent auction, will be applied to the operating budget of the museum, which founder Wilhelmina “Billie” Cole Holladay opened 15 years ago to redress the male domination of the art world by highlighting female artists.

Mrs. Holladay and staff members flew to St. Petersburg while they were planning the exhibition and picked through the basement archives of the Hermitage to find significant works for the show. Curator Jordana Pomeroy noted that Catherine the Great and her court weren’t especially focused on female artists, but the country nonetheless offered a great opportunity for female painters from Western Europe. “Russia was so concerned with elevating the level of art, gender didn’t matter,” she said.

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