- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

THE EVENT: The Phillips Collection’s benefit celebrating the reinstallation of Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” in recently enhanced facilities.

THE RECEPTION: On site at the Phillips complex, where director Jay Gates busied himself giving minitours of the enlarged Goh Annex and the new five-story wing containing exhibition space, a library and an auditorium.

“We never had a gallery big enough for pictures of this scale before,” Mr. Gates said proudly as patrons admired large installations by Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella and John Walker on the first floor. Also new: a quiet Sculpture Garden featuring Barbara Hepworth’s massive 1965 bronze “Dual Form,” which had been installed just a few days before. “I stayed across the way at the Cosmos Club so I could sit in my window and watch them lower it down with a crane,” said Madeleine, Countess of Bessborough, who accompanied the Phillips’ recent purchase here from England.

Patrons made obligatory pilgrimages to the old wing to view Renoir’s “Boating Party,” back home after a world tour, many pausing to chat with Laughlin Phillips, the museum’s chairman emeritus and son of its founder, Duncan Phillips. “When my father bought it for $125,000 in 1923, the New York Times had a story on Page 1 about this odd collector who had paid so much for a painting,” Mr. Phillips recalled with a laugh, “but he knew what he was doing. The museum needed an iconic work.”

Also on the must-see list was the new Rothko Room, famed for its four paintings, one on each wall, with a contemplation bench in the middle. The consensus, however, was that it is too brightly lighted. As benefactor Marc Leland pronounced: “Rothko’s works were never meant to make you feel happy.”

THE DINNER: A phalanx of umbrella-holding attendants ushered the $1,000-a-pop guests to special busses for a cosy ride to dinner in Georgetown at Katharine Graham’s former manse, now owned by telecommunications financier Mark Ein, who’s making the property available to favorite causes even though he hasn’t moved in yet.

“Stunning” (Sylvia Ripley). “Over the top” (Mike Peabody). The superlatives kept coming as guests entered the giant, 15,000-square-foot fantasy pavilion filled with cascading yellow fabric, towering explosions of spring flowers and 15 chandeliers that before long were swinging about 25 degrees to and fro during a huge thunderstorm. (“The evening’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ moment,” one quivering guest said.)

No matter. The lobster-quail-souffle glace dinner for 550 guests was delicious, the tables were exquisite (modeled after the “Boating Party,” of course, with lots of fruit, baguettes and French lace) and the dancing was lively — thanks to chairwomen Pat Sagon and Margaret Hunter.

An evening that surely will put the Phillips (and the Ein residence) on the primo party map for a long time to come, said many guests, who included Sen. John Warner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, British Ambassador Sir David and Lady Manning, Rima Al-Sabah, Louis and Muffy Cabot, Huntington Block, George Vradenburg, Roger and Vicki Sant, Vernon and Ann Jordan, Diane Rehm and Smithsonian chief Lawrence Small.

—Kevin Chaffee

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