A throng of maybe 100 is sipping wine and nibbling chicken liver pate and skewered sea scallops. Most are dressed in black tie or evening gowns. Some of the dinner jackets are adorned with medals, indicating that the wearer is a military man. Many are spiced with colorful vests or adventurous cummerbunds, suggesting a free spirit. One of the freest spirits is art professor Edward “Eddie” Purcell III, who has cast aside all thought of a tux in favor of a full-length red silk 1950s vintage Chinese smoking robe.
Almost anything goes at the Arts Club of Washington, whose clubhouse is the quarters where James Monroe lived for a few months as president, in 1817, while the White House was being rebuilt following the British barbecue of 1814.
“The thing about the Arts Club, either you get it or you don’t,” says Robert Sacheli, club program chairman. “We have a lot of eccentric people here. We’re very proud of that. We encourage eccentricity.”
The bohemian side of the Social Register started calling this house home in 1916. Some of the same upper-crusty social folkways continue to be pursued, along with an artistic mission that seems equal parts anachronistic and vital. At a time when arts funding is being cut everywhere else, and private galleries are closing or moving to other parts of town, the Arts Club’s nearly $1 million annual budget is stable. The money goes to arts-related programming, historic preservation and club activities. The club hosts monthly openings for four artists in its four exhibit spaces, presents weekly free music concerts and sponsors scholarships and literary prizes. The public is welcome six days a week.
It must be the only club in this still-clubby town that is for members only — and for everybody else. This paradox is the beginning of a long list of reasons why the Arts Club makes no sense — and therefore why it survives. It is at once whimsically un-Washington and profoundly old Washington.
“There’s a comfortable dowagerism to it,” says Lars Etzkorn, a lobbyist. “Folk who’ve been here a long time, even if during the day they might work at the Defense Department or someplace quintessentially political D.C., they have a creative side that they want to express, that they enjoy expressing. And this allows them, if you will, to come out of the closet.”
Look around and listen. The sensory overload takes a minute to get used to. It is multimedia, decidedly analogue, definitely unplugged.
Club president Jack Hannula, a painter, steps onto a little stage and recites a poem he wrote for this recent black-tie occasion, the annual Monroe Dinner: