by Debbie Wells
If you want to know the real art scene in Washington D.C., look beyond the Smithsonian museums and discover the Arts Club of Washington, a hidden gem just blocks from the White House. The Arts Club of Washington is a private club, art gallery and walled sculpture garden. Its members are those active in the arts and dedicated to supporting art and culture in the nation’s capital. The club’s gallery and museum is open to the public and tours of the site are available on request.
The club’s historic I Street mansion was formerly the home of President James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth. However, the story of the original building goes back to 1808, when Gideon Granger, Postmaster of the United States, purchased the property. The home was also once owned by Professor Cleveland Abbe, a prominent meteorologist remembered as the father of the U.S. Weather Service.
However, the site’s most prominent residents were James and Elizabeth Monroe. James Monroe came to Washington as Secretary of State and lived at this house when the British invaded Washington in the War of 1812. It is said that President James Madison and Monroe held a conference in the house on the day of the British invasion in 1814. There is even a legend, which has continued as part of the lore of the house, that President Madison rode his horse through the front door and out the back to join the Monroes and First Lady Dolley Madison (who was staying at the Monroe house at the time) in their flight to Virginia to escape the oncoming British. The Monroes remained in the house until 1817, where they hosted their inaugural balls, before moving into the newly reconstructed White House as President and First Lady.
By the end of the 19th century, the home began a new history. Inspired by the London’s Chelsea Arts Club and the National Arts Club in Manhattan, Washington artists got together to found a club in 1916. The group purchased the Monroe House as its headquarters. With a focus on painting, sculpture, music, and drama, the Arts Club provided a contrast to Washington’s more traditional clubs. It was also the first club in the nation’s capital to admit men and women. The club has hosted countless events over the years with celebrities including Claudette Colbert, F. Scott Fitzgerlad and Tallulah Bankhead in attendance! Today, one can participate in a number of cultural activities there, from drawing workshops, dance performances, jazz concerts and artist talks.
The club is especially proud of their prestigious, Marfield Prize, also known as the National Award for Arts Writing. The award annually recognizes the author of an outstanding nonfiction book about the visual, literary, media, or performing arts with a $10,000 prize. In addition, the winning author is invited to Washington, DC, for a short residency that includes an awards ceremony, a presentation to a DC public high school, an interview, and a public reading at the Arts Club of Washington. Winners have included Anne-Marie O’Connor for The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Knopf: 2012) and R. Tripp Evans for Grant Wood: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf: 2010) – two artists that are also currently being celebrated in New York City as well, at the Neue Galerie and the Whitney Museum of American Art, respectively.
It is a very interesting experience to visit the club and explore the rooms. Stroll through the parlor room, dining room, library and more to see evidence of its history. There is even a cellar area that serves as a charming spot for lounging. To purchase works created by the artist members, visit their Spilsbury Gallery in the adjacent building. For more information, visit www.artsclubofwashington.org
Note the portrait of James Monroe over the fireplace. It is based on a Rembrandt Peale painting that is currently in the James Monroe Museum and Library. Charles Bittinger, a member of the Washington Arts Club, painted this portrait of Monroe and depicts the Art Club building in the background.