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Away from the grind, Richmond artists reconnect.

By then, there'd been a luncheon with art and travel writers from such publications as The Wall Street Journal and Condé Nast Traveller, the Richmond Ballet's gala at the Museum of Modern Art and a luncheon hosted by the Virginia Opera. After drinks at The Whitney, Warner would head to dinner at The Frick Collection.

Away from Virginia, the Governor seemed as comfortable with the museum setting in someone else's state as he is with Medicaid reform.

"My job is not to get nervous," Warner joked. "My job is to make other people nervous." But Warner put his troops at ease, whether introducing himself to young artists at the MoMA as "Mark" or casually charming the Whitney crowd over the mic.

"It's fantastic," said Carol Piersol, artistic director of the Firehouse Theatre. "The governor really got this together."

On The Whitney's sunken concrete patio on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Piersol seemed to connect with the city, which would likely produce a more responsive audience for the contemporary drama the Firehouse explores in its nontraditional space.

"We're the kind of thing that people who really appreciate the arts love," Piersol said. "People in the counties don't understand that we're there and we don't do 'family theater.' We do adult theater and it's good."

Around her, artists in all phases of their careers rubbed elbows with potential patrons. "Do you think it would be appropriate to talk to the Dominion guy about my power bill?" joked Alan Parker, a guitar player who performed with Virginia Commonwealth University's advanced jazz combo at the party.

Some of VCU's brighter postgrad stars in the art world were there too. Doug Stiles, whose home décor line was recently featured in Interior Design magazine, was reunited with his old professor Jim Long, chair of the photography and film department at VCU. The pair hadn't seen each other for five years.

Paolo Arao, a visual artist who just finished exhibiting at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Chelsea, unexpectedly bumped into Troy Etter, an old friend from school. Etter, a successful flutist, had a solo recital at Carnegie Hall last year. "If you were in my world," Etter demurs, "you'd know it's not that big of a deal."

Chris Bloom and Timothy Blum, both graduates of VCU's sculpture department who live in New York, quit wisecracking long enough to praise their graduate program. "It's the hottest school in the world," says Blum, whose work graced the front of The New York Times' arts section in March.

Even though Blum and Bloom are now successful in the Big Apple, they're not above hometown thrills. "I just met Jim Ukrop," Bloom said.

Jonathan Wagner, the self-appointed "un-portrait portrait artist who doesn't give a f—k about the art world" handed out business cards as if he were dealing poker. Wagner said he pioneered showing art at Pudd'nheads on Main Street when he was a painting student at VCU and was recently elected New Jersey artist of the month. "I've made so many damn contacts tonight!" Wagner said.

Most of the crowd dissolved around 8 and dispersed into the city. A few hours later downtown at The Joyce Theatre, the ballet finished its fourth performance in the run. A generous, anonymous Ballet board member rented a white stretch Hummer to take the dancers for dinner a few blocks downtown at Sushi Samba in the West Village.

New York or not, some things never change. Richmond Ballet's resident artist Igor Antonov took a peek in the Hummer. "There's a bar inside!" he cried. And they were off. S



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