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For Keren Coxe and Alex Belinfante, attending Dupont Circle’s First Friday art walk has become something of a ritual. But tonight, their timing must be off: When they enter the Korean Cultural Service on Massachusetts Avenue NW, they find a crowd of people listening to a lecture on works from the U.S. Korean Professional Artist Union.
They’re dismayed—the lecture should have ended by now. They duck into a side room. “Hey, Keren,” Belinfante whispers. “This sounds like the retired professor from Georgetown. He just talks on and on.”
They stay in the room, fidgeting. Colorful, surrealistic paintings of flora by one Artist Union member, Kyung-hee Park, line the wood-paneled walls. Belinfante picks up a pamphlet and paces around the room without opening it. Finally, there’s a rush of feet and the lecture group passes by, heading upstairs for refreshments. Coxe and Belinfante slip into the flow.
In the second-floor dining room, a horseshoe of tables holds up a wide sampling of Asian cuisine: rolled sushi, peppery chicken wings, pork dumplings. Without looking down, Belinfante snatches a Styrofoam plate and utensils. Then he moves down the line, spearing each dish with his plastic fork like a child whacking the heads of compatriots in an energetic game of duck-duck-goose. Coxe follows behind him.
They go to a corner of the room and devour what’s on their plates. Then they go back for seconds.
“Eight or nine out of 10,” says Belinfante, rating the spread as he and Coxe scurry down the stairs and into the street. It definitely tops what the four galleries they stormed earlier had to offer: pretzels, banana chips, fortune cookies, and fudge. But they’re not done yet: There’s a Labor Day art sale at Glen Echo Park featuring grapes and lemonade. Only after that will they rest—at least until tomorrow, when they’ll drive 40 miles to another appetizer-laden art walk in Frederick, Md.
Since they met in 1981, Coxe, 60, and Belinfante, 65, have dined almost exclusively at gallery openings and other cultural events. “The number of art openings we go to in one day varies a lot; anywhere from zero to over a dozen,” says Belinfante, a GS-15 econometrician naturally inclined to number crunching. “The average is between two and three. I once estimated that it was about 900 a year.”
You can’t ingest that much raw celery and dip without getting a name for yourself, and the Chevy Chase couple has several: “the Eaters,” “the Munchers,” “the Moochers,” “the Art Bums,” “the Cheese Critics.” Whatever they’re called, their voracity is legendary.
“Some people get some food at an art opening [that] they kind of eat because it’s there,” says B. Stanley, artistic director of the District of Columbia Arts Center. “It’s not like they really care about eating this food. It’s obviously not very good food.”
Coxe and Belinfante are different. “These guys,” Stanley says, windmilling both hands in front of his mouth, “it’s like they’re having dinner or something. It looks like somebody’s who’s watching the news while they’re eating dinner.” And they sometimes opt for takeout, he adds. “If it’s cookies or something you can put in your pocket, those guys are up for it.”
They also eat with singular focus. Painter Dana Ellyn Kaufman, who was at a 2002 opening of erotic art at Arlington’s old Khoja Gallery, remembers a votive candle on the food table setting Coxe’s sleeve afire while she loaded up with crackers and Hershey’s Kisses. “She was very cool about it,” says Kaufman. “Just put it out and went along with her business. I think I’d have been…screaming like a little girl if it happened to me.”
Belinfante used to carry a portable notebook to record future openings. Now he scribbles dates on scraps of paper that he crams into his “filing cabinet”—a painfully overstuffed breast pocket. At home, he transfers the information onto a legal pad, then transfers that to an e-mail he sends to 30 other Washington-area hunter-gatherers.
It’s a lot of time and effort, and there are other costs, as well: When Coxe and Belinfante return to their blue Ford Focus outside the Korean Cultural Service, they note that the odometer has topped 100,000. It’s a 2001 model, and they’re running it into the ground.
“That’s what we usually do with our cars,” says Belinfante, executing another snap calculation. “We average about one car every four years.”
For the common-law couple, who are both in the D.C. chapter of Mensa, eating out is the smart thing to do.
Belinfante arrived in Washington in 1978, with a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. Studying in the ultraliberal community had given him, he says, a lingering fondness for the avant-garde, notably jazz music and the psychedelic art of the ’60s. But he had to indulge his passions on the side once he went to work for the Federal Communications Commission, where he still edits documents such as the 808-page flower-presser that is the 2002 Universal Service Monitoring Report.
Coxe was also once an econometrician, too, chugging her way through George Washington University’s graduate program in statistics. But in 1975, she was run down by a drunk driver while crossing the street in Adams Morgan. After the brain-damaging accident, her IQ dropped from 130 to 100. So she became an artist’s model, posing nude for students at the Corcoran College of Art. “I found I liked it almost as much as I liked being a statistician,” she says.
The couple first noticed each other at the same concerts, such as chamber music at the Organization of American States and a performance by the defunct Washington Civic Opera. Coxe, with her modeling contacts, was already heavily into art openings, and she drew Belinfante in with her. They bought a house in Mount Pleasant and initiated their apparent life program of speed-eating little cheese cubes.
“Many of the receptions are around mealtimes,” explains Belinfante. “We eat at art openings because the refreshments are available there, and it allows us to spend the maximum amount of time involved in the art scene.”
They’ve spent so much time in the scene, in fact, that their presence is expected—in some cases even eagerly hoped for. “They know the Gallery Guide so well,” says painter Virginia Daley, “that if they skip your opening, you are a failure. So I’ve started looking at them as good luck.”
Over time, Coxe and Belinfante became associates with like-minded grazers. Al was one, a homeless man who used to store things he found on the street in the couple’s attic. He was known to some gallerists as “the Professor,” for his habit of wearing a frayed suit and tie to openings as much as for his apparently genuine interest in the art.
There’s also “the Daughter,” the offspring of Coxe’s first marriage, 40-year-old Mary Sue Burnett, and “Vivian,” a dark-haired, backpack-wielding animal-rights activist who was attacking the appetizers at the Korean Cultural Service. The gang has proved a formidable challenge for some cash-flow-conscious gallery owners, who have long struggled to find ways to defend against them.
“They are the people for whom we stopped laying out plates at our receptions,” says Stanley. He refers to a 1995 opening of Irish landscapes at which the couple laid waste to a banquet of rice and beans. “That was the biggest pile of food I’ve ever seen on anybody’s plate,” he recalls. “They were like those little 7-inch paper plates, but it was mounded. It wasn’t like they just put some food on there—they had to figure it out to get that much food.”
After that, Stanley instituted a napkins-only policy.
Michael Clark, director of Georgetown’s Museum of Contemporary Art DC, deals with Coxe, Belinfante, and friends with an arsenal of mind games. “I decided to start using reverse psychology on them,” he says. “I do it with a lot of homeless people, offer them drinks. I say, ‘Heeey! C’mon in! Food’s over there, drink’s over there! C’mon in!’ They say, ‘No thanks.’”
Some gallery employees just let them gorge, pitying what they assume must be folk in the grip of hard times. “They don’t look like they’re starving. But they eat like they are,” says Zenith Gallery’s Alison Davis, who until a week ago thought Coxe and Belinfante were homeless. “I feel seriously duped now.”
For anybody who might disparage their dining habits—or, God forbid, deny them food—Coxe and Belinfante have a simple retort: “We buy art.” Lots of it, in fact.
“Anyone who thinks we are freeloaders should take a look at our collection,” says Belinfante. “If we didn’t go to so many art receptions, our art collection would be a lot smaller.”
As it stands now, they own hundreds of medium- to large-scale abstract paintings and prints, as well as various pieces of sculpture. “Colorful abstract is what we like the best, though we’ll buy representational stuff that isn’t necessarily abstract but is colorful,” says Belinfante. “If it isn’t colorful, it doesn’t do anything for us.”
He means that quite literally, it turns out: The Eaters’ taste in art is the result of more than Belinfante’s formative art-world experiences in Berkeley; it’s also a byproduct of medical conditions.
“I have a slight problem with certain shades of red and green but have no problem distinguishing the primary colors,” explains Belinfante. “Keren has no color-blindness at all. However, she is very myopic and consequently does not like small works.”
Just before the turn of the millennium, Coxe’s father and Belinfante’s mother and aunt died. With their inheritances, the two could finally fulfill their life’s dream: building a house worthy of their collection—or, rather, collections.
They settled on a lot next to Rock Creek Park that, Belinfante points out, lacked water lines and thus was dirt-cheap. Next, they contracted local sculptor and architect Dickson Carroll to draw up the building plans. The thing that resulted mushroomed over the otherwise staid neighborhood like a Technicolor hallucination. It’s the embodiment of everything they think good art should have: loudness, abstraction, immensity.
Drivers still stop short on Rittenhouse Street NW to ogle the multitowered monster with its blue trim, curlicue eaves, and three queer wind vanes sticking out from its top.
“They have sculpture on their roof,” says local photographer Michael Hauptschein, who attended Coxe and Belinfante’s New Year’s Eve party in 2000. “At night, they light it up….It looks like it’s glowing with bright neon colors. From four blocks away, you know which house is theirs. It has a fantasy feel about it, almost like something you might expect to see in Disney World.”
If visitors make it inside, one of the first things they see is an orange, boulder-sized wax sculpture of Coxe’s head, a study for a bronze statue of a textile worker that now sits in Charlotte, N.C. On a wall near the door is a Sam Gilliam painting, special because it broke Coxe and Belinfante’s rule of purchasing only artwork priced under $500. (They paid $1,500, including framing.)
Distributed throughout the house’s three stories are countless other works thriftily obtained: acrylic-on-plexiglass paintings by Sandi Miller, a creature made from stitched-together stuffed animals by Beth Long, a signed Miró print that was bargain-rate, Coxe says, because “the frame is loose.”
There are other collections, too. Shelves of glass blobs by the fireplace testify to the couple’s membership in the local Paperweight Collectors Association; a 25,000-strong LP collection is in the basement; bags of newspapers itemized by date are hidden in a crawlspace adjoining Belinfante’s computer room. “I am still reading [Washington] Posts from 1987, Wall Street Journals from 1991, and [Washington] City Papers from 1997,” says Belinfante. “Not the news, but comics, columns, and human-interest stories.”
Behind those stacks, in the far end of the dim crawlspace, is a mattress meant for Al, their fellow Eater. They were going to collect him, too, says Coxe, but he disappeared about a year ago, before hearing the good news.
And in the kitchen is their collection of food: cabinets packed with cans of green beans, pink salmon, and beef in natural juices; a mammoth freezer full of ready-to-eat dinners; and two refrigerators that store stacks of Coxe’s bread pudding, which she mixes up in a crab-steaming pot whenever the supply dwindles.
Of course, Coxe and Belinfante retreat here only in times of emergency. As well-stocked as it is, the kitchen can’t really provide what Coxe gets from good gallery food: “a full dinner.”CP