- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

Some 1,300 people were on the guest list for Wednesday’s six-hour gala celebrating the new look of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

An estimated 1,500 came, trumpeters heralding their arrival at the F Street entrance, where security screening had to be abandoned for the night.

The halls of the old Patent Office Building — now named the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture — rocked with music on every floor. An elaborate buffet was set up amid flashing lights in the grand hall where Abraham Lincoln once held an inaugural ball, and Andrew Jackson — in a portrait by Ralph Earl —looked down on a busy bar scene not far from a contemporary artwork by David Beck. The work, a mixed media construction said to be an interpretation of the building, was the only item commissioned for the opening by both its tenants.

After nearly seven years spent on renovation and restoration, the magnificent structure deserves a party, and it is receiving quite a few of them. In addition to Wednesday’s open house, donors are being feted with private dinners, and the public is invited for what is billed as the Grand Opening Family Festival — complete with an ice cream social — from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.

“One of the original ideas of the L’Enfant plan was to have this building be halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, between O and 16th Street,” observed Austin Kiplinger, a self-described fan of Washington history.

“We hope to have a dinner party with history,” was the timely quote of Marc Pachter, Portrait Gallery director, portraying in one line both the event and the purpose of the institution. He named both “ghosts and living people” as ideal guests. “My position always was that the museum has been open, only the building has been closed. The joy for us was opening up the space,” he said in typically ebullient fashion. The most difficult part, he added, was “coordinating all the elements,” including negotiating use of the one freight elevator used by the two museums.

Gallery board member Joan Mondale came with former Vice President Walter Mondale in tow. “I’m just a tagalong,” he said as his wife sailed on ahead. Ned Rifkin, Smithsonian undersecretary of art, hurriedly characterized himself as “midwife” of the renovation project while squiring around noted Washington art collector Robert Lehrman.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small only paused long enough in his peregrinations to admit he had been through the building “probably 100 times” during the previous years’ struggle to bring the 170-year-old structure up to date for a museum-going public eager to see American history reflected through American artists’ eyes.

Artists were everywhere, and not only on the walls: Nelson Shanks, Lee Friedlander, Sean Scully, Bill Christenberry, Lou Stovall, Morgan Monceaux and others.

“This is a big thing,” remarked Mr. Monceaux, whose portrait of the late musician Ray Charles was among new acquisitions featured in a “Gifts to the Nation” hallway. The Baltimore artist, who cradled in his arms a well-worn white teddy bear, was a striking figure in black leather pants and a large silver lock worn around his neck. The bear, he explained, was the last one “given me by my mother before she died.” The lock, a big one, signaled “I’m in service to my muse.”

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