Boycott Drama Gives the Corcoran Ball a “Downton Abbey” Dynamic

The annual black-tie gala drew 720 guests on Friday night.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

How this year’s Corcoran Ball was viewed came down to who was doing the talking, and whether they were at the ball and talking, or whether they were absent and talking with their silence—what some called a “boycott” of the annual spring gala. And among those who were present, the comments ranged from complete denial of any bumptious issues facing the century-old art museum to candid acceptance that there are critical problems with the building, the operating funds, and tenuous bonds within the leadership, while feeling optimistic that a bright future is at hand thanks to a proposed partnership with the University of Maryland.

Set the contentiousness aside and here’s what stood out: the Corcoran Ball endures, as it has since the mid-1950s, as one of the most beautiful events on the Washington gala calendar, a genuine celebration of spring through the artistry of flower arranging, room decor, and menu. The guest list typically represents a high level of home-grown wealth, the so-called “cave dwellers,” plus some official government and diplomatic types and has evolved over the years to also include more corporate names. It comes as near as Washington society can to replicating the class and style dynamics of Downton Abbey. Which is why it is notable in a drama-of-manners kind of way when some significant members of the hierarchy don’t show up—people talk, or whisper, as they did on Friday night.

The whispers were about the absence of a doctor and his wife (a prominent member of the powerful women’s committee that organizes the ball), a few young social couples (the wives are also on the women’s committee), and some staples of the scene who seem to never miss the ball. A long-time participant and women’s committee member commented in an e-mail with a tone that sounded louder than a whisper, “Yes I’ve had enough!”

“The titanic is sinking and the women keep dancing in the ballroom,” she wrote. “If only they had looked further then their Junior League ways and had included the community I would have supported it!” Another “boycotter” said the reason he and some others stayed away was simply a matter of “unhappiness” with the direction the museum is taking. Survival can be a messy business, but those with paying jobs at the Corcoran talk less about unhappiness and a lot more about the need to survive. Mimi Carter, the gallery’s communications director, and one of my dinner partners, was confident that better days are just around the corner.

While this year’s ball felt smaller, the turnout was an impressive 700-plus, with many of them paying $500 per person, a ticket price that has remained steady for a remarkable number of years. The lower number of guests could have as much to do with the economy as anything. The recession hit the gala business hard. It’s inching back but has yet to reach the mad numbers of pre-2008. In 2007, for example, the Corcoran Ball attracted more than 1,100. While smaller in size, this year’s ball had a bigger turnout than either the Opera Ball, the Washington Ballet ball, or the Washington Performing Arts Society gala, each of which happened over the last month. Whatever their internal tribulations, the Corcoran has that to boast about.

And, again, there was the beauty of it all. Flowers, with the shelf life of air, fortunately don’t get involved in politics or parse their beauty based on budget.

The crew at Jack H. Lucky Floral Design waved their magic wands at each table and created one splendid display after another, with practically no repetition. The main atrium rooms and many of the galleries were decorated to meet a theme, paying homage to the art on the walls. For the room designs Lucky conspired with Eric Michael of Occasions caterers and the team from Perfect Settings.

Spring guided the meal, starting with a salad of lobster and crab with spring herbs, followed by grilled Australian lamb loin in a shallot and Shiraz reduction and finished with chocolate ganache cake accompanied by caramelized pineapple, Kumquats and blood orange slices. The wines included Piper Heidsieck Champagne, a Domaine de Cassagnoles Cuvée Gros Manseng white and a Tramontane Cotes du Roussillon red.

Two interesting side notes to the evening: It poured rain outside. Flashes of lightning and claps of thunder filled the sky as guests hurried from their cars, up the steps, and into the museum. A storm outside makes any party feel welcoming, and especially a party that looks like a garden. Also outside the museum walls, and several hundred miles to the north, the drama in Boston played out, as police and FBI finished their manhunt with the capture of marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I confess to catching glimpses of the live coverage on my iPhone, but I wasn’t alone. It was the start-off topic of dinner conversation.

Given the splendor of the evening it would be easy for someone from Mars—or who doesn’t pay attention to local media—to assume all is well at the Corcoran, and for many of those at the ball it was the party that mattered, at least for a few hours on a rainy Friday night. After dinner, in the atrium, as couples whirled and dipped to the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra, strife was not the issue, inside or outside the Corcoran. Everyone knew there’d be plenty of that in due time.