Calling it the "finest, most ambitious show we've ever presented," Jack Shea, chairman of the Newport Harbor Art Museum's board of trustees, welcomed more than 250 guests last week to the benefit opening of "Flemish Expressions: Representational Painting in the 20th Century." The $250 per black-tie affair combined a silvery tribute to the museum's upcoming 25th anniversary with a reception and formal dinner honoring museum leaders and Belgian dignitaries--among them Herman Dehennin, Belgian ambassador to the United States, and Vincent van der Mersch, consul general of Belgium in Los Angeles.
Guests, many of them so elaborately dressed they looked like artworks themselves, sipped champagne from etched plastic flutes and nibbled on culinary tidbits proffered from gleaming silver trays. They sauntered about the museum during the reception phase of "Silver Solstice," stopping for hard, inquiring looks at the first comprehensive assemblage of Flemish symbolist, Expressionist and post-war figurative paintings ever displayed in the United States.
"Indeed, this is one of the two outstanding shows we have had here," said trustee Nancy Zinsmeyer, dripping in diamonds and pearls and black couture velvet trimmed with satin roses and lace. "It compares with, or even surpasses our Edvard Munch exhibit."
Zinsmeyer attended with her fiancee, Donald Wynne, a trial lawyer from Boston. The couple had become engaged only the day before. "Six carats," she whispered, gazing at the oval sapphire perched on a perfectly manicured finger of her left hand. Six marquis-cut diamonds surrounded the midnight-blue gem. "Donald has a sapphire and diamond ring, too. Just tiny stones. I thought the blue went well with his gray hair."
Museum Director Kevin Consey called the exhibit "comparable to the kind of exhibit any museum in America would be proud to do. It asserts our claim that we are one of the most important modern contemporary art museums in the country."
Consey said he and Paul Schimmel, the museum's chief curator, have been interested in Flemish art for some time. "We finally got together three years ago and decided, well, why not try to do a show of Flemish painting? And then we asked ourselves why no one had thought to do it before."
Margie Shackelford, museum director of development, said the board was composed of people who had "a great interest in art. They're all very progressive thinkers. They accept new ideas. And they're very supportive of the staff."
Shackelford said it was the board and Orange County's "anything's possible energy" that brought her out from San Antonio, Tex., two years ago, where she had been director of development for the San Antonio Museum of Art. "If you're going to be successful in funding a museum of contemporary art, you need a group of people who have lots of energy and interest. And they're here. Right in Orange County."
Shackelford said the $30,000 raised at the reception would be used to help underwrite the exhibit.
After guests spent nearly two hours perusing the exhibit, they left the security-tight museum for the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach, where they would enjoy phase two of "Silver Solstice"--more sipping of the bubbly, elbow-rubbing and a sit-down dinner, which included a terrine of salmon, paupiette of veal stuffed with foie gras and Belgian endive salad. Dessert was a rather loose chocolate mousse.
Trustee member Johann Jonas said she and her husband, Richard, are collectors of contemporary art. "Avid collectors. Passionate collectors. And the way it all began is a rather funny story: We'd just moved into Newport Beach (the couple now reside in Emerald Bay), and we decided we needed to remodel the bedroom. It was so boring. So, I went out and looked at wallpaper, figured how many rolls it would take. And then I found out what the cost to hang it would be per roll, and when I added it all up it was outrageous.
"Dick said, 'We might as well be buying a painting!' That's when we bought our first. It's been a passion from that moment on."
After dinner, Shea took the podium to toast Ambassador Dehennin.
A drawing for a trip to Belgium was won by Robert and Peggy Sprague.
Michael Perkins chaired the event and E.G. Chamberlin was co-chairwoman. Committee members included Gloria Gae Schick, Nancy Zinsmeyer, Dina von Burger, Sassy Lubby, Judy Hemley, Leah Marshall, Anne Badham and Peggy Sprague.