Much to the surprise of those attending the 20th Anniversary Celebration of The Alexandria Commission For the Arts Monday night the organization announced the reactivation of "Alex Awards" and named the first recipient.
Standing before more than 300 avid supporters of artistic talent packed into the ballroom at the Hilton Mark Center, Commission Chair Leon Scioscia, made the award to Donna Bergheim, for her "lifetime support of the arts."
He noted her distinguished career in education, international communications and cultural affairs. "She has been a board member of at least eight different local and state non-profit organization and served on the Virginia Arts Commission," said Scioscia.
Scioscia noted, "Although she has never served as a commissioner on Alexandria's Commission For the Arts, she has served on a number of committees. From the mid 1950's to the present she has given to the arts. And that's what its [the award] is all about. A lifetime of giving."
Although Bergheim had been told of the honor prior to the event she admitted, "I still felt a little awed by the whole thing. I'm still not sure I should have been the one chosen. But it is a great pleasure."
By learning beforehand about the award, Bergheim said it gave her the opportunity to have family present. She was joined by her husband Melvin, two daughters, two grandchildren and one of her sons-in-law.
An Alexandria resident since 1960, Bergheim served in the Foreign Service and worked for the United States Information Agency. She was stationed in Japan, Burma and Mexico City. "The latter is where I met my husband," she revealed.
AN UNUSUAL TWIST to the Alex Awards is that recipients will receive a piece of original art instead of a trophy or plaque, according to Scioscia.
"For Donna, we commissioned an artist to do a water color of their former home on Maury Lane. Within the last year they moved into an apartment," he explained.
"We lived in that home for 35 years. Now every time we look at the painting it will remind us of not only the home and its memories but the award," Bergheim said.
The object of the reestablished awards is to recognize artistic achievements each year in four sectors — artistic, business, community and education, according to Scioscia. "The Commission will go out into the community to challenge our partners in those sectors to help the arts thrive," he said.
"We will issue an annual call for nominations for either individuals or corporations in each of the four sectors. There will be one recipient named each year in each category," he acknowledged. "Each will receive a piece of art as the award."
In order to finance the program, the Commission will make the Alex Awards a part of its fundraising activity, Scioscia explained. "This will be in addition to our normal expenditures," he said.
KICKING OFF the evening's speakers was Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille who announced that he has declared 2004 "the Year of the Arts" in Alexandria. "We need to embrace public arts throughout the city. We need them on display," he said.
"Throughout the balance of this year there will be many art events in the city. We want to get all citizens to come out and enjoy this. Last Monday, when we adopted the budget for the next fiscal year, we approved an extra $25,000 to promote the arts."
One of the initiatives announced by Euille at the dinner, as one way to get everyone involved in the arts, was Alexandria's first "free Outdoor Film Festival for families." It will be held July 30, 31 and Aug. 1, at Ben Brenman Park, 5000 Duke Street.
Films to be shown are "Grease," Friday; "Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets," Saturday; and "Shrek," Sunday. Vendors and area restaurants will sell food including popcorn and homemade lemonade beginning at 7 p.m. with movies beginning at 8 p.m. or at darkness.
"Bring your blankets and lawn chairs and just have fun. It's all free," Euille told the audience.
Prior to Euille's opening remarks, Jennifer Cover Payne, executive director, Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, serving as the evening's mistress of ceremonies, noted that there has been a "300 percent growth in funds to the arts in Alexandria over the past 20 years."
Mary Ann de Barbieri, founding chair, Alexandria Commission For the Arts, praised the Commission for its growth and all that it has accomplished.
"Twenty years ago must have been a very creative time for me. I not only was involved with birthing the Commission but I also gave birth to my son. He will be 20 this year," she said.
Rounding out the speakers was Kirk Kincannon, director, Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. He acknowledged the working relationship between the Commission and his department in a myriad enterprises involving art endeavors throughout the city.
In addition to the speakers, the audience was treated to a variety of musical presentations. These included a string quartet of the Mount Vernon Orchestra, The Alexandria Choral Society, a children's choir from the Choral Society and a vocal quartet known as "Mercury," part of the Alexandria Harmonizers.