Conversation Pieces

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Quick, what's your favorite object on public view?

Not so easy, is it? We know. We asked.

What we learned is that the Washington area is awash in wonderful things to look at. Okay, we already knew that. What we didn't know is that so many of them would come attached to such interesting stories.

But then we live in a place surrounded not just by fascinating artifacts, but by fascinating people. Here are a few of them, along with what they love and why.

Roger Mason | Bob Barnett | Eun Yang | Eric Schaeffer | Ana Marie Cox | Robert Wiedmaier | Carolyn Hax | Marie Johns | Ted Leonsis | Tom Toles | Tony Gittens | Stephen Joel Trachtenberg | Adrian M. Fenty

ROGER MASON | Shooting Guard, Washington Wizards

Roger Mason still remembers his first trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as a student at Sidwell Friends School. Even today, the Washington native says it's one of the city's most meaningful cultural institutions, made all the more so by the year the Washington Wizards shooting guard spent playing hoops in Israel for the Hapoel Jerusalem team.

Calling himself a bit of a history buff, Mason is also itching for the reopening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Yet he says the lessons of the Holocaust in particular, at least as conveyed to an impressionable 15-year-old, had an impact that lasted well beyond that school field trip.

"When I lived in Israel," he says, "there's certain holidays -- not holidays, but days of remembering -- where those times are remembered. I felt a little bit more connected, knowing what was going on because of the fact that I visited that museum."

U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM 100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW (15th Street). 202-488-0400. Open daily, except Christmas, from 10 to 5:30. Free.

BOB BARNETT | Lawyer/Literary Agent, Williams & Connolly

Bob Barnett's favorite, the Phillips Collection's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," is as quintessentially Washingtonian as the story behind the power lawyer's pick.

While clerking for Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, the young lawyer first experienced the pull of Pierre Auguste Renoir's impressionist masterpiece. Several times during the 1972-73 court session, Barnett remembers the late justice herding him and his fellow clerks on what would become a lunchtime pilgrimage: "He'd say, 'Let's go visit the painting.' "

Barnett says that basking in the glow of the iconic 1880-81 canvas, which depicts a languid summer picnic, was only half the show. The other half? Watching the transformation that came over his mentor in its presence. "He'd just stand in front of the painting, and he'd get a big smile," says Barnett, who characterizes the painting's effect on White as almost magical. "He wasn't a man who was particularly smiley," Barnett says. "He was actually a very serious guy -- wonderful guy -- but a very serious guy, and some would say a gruff guy. But when he stood in front of that painting, he got a smile. His eyes lit up."

PHILLIPS COLLECTION 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-2151. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 to 5; Thursdays from 10 to 8:30, Sundays from 11 to 6; closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission to the permanent collection is free Tuesday-Friday, Saturday-Sunday $10, $8 for seniors and students, free for members and age 18 and younger.

EUN YANG | Reporter and Weekend News Anchor, NBC4

Like so many, Eun Yang says she's no art expert, but she knows what she likes. Unlike many, the television reporter has actually bought some art, and it's very much of the moment: a large, contemporary photograph by former D.C. artist Jason Falchook from the much-buzzed-about but now-closed Fusebox Gallery.

When it comes to museums, Yang's tastes run only slightly more traditional. When she's out looking at art -- which is less frequently these days, with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old at home -- a haunt has long been the concourse level of the National Gallery of Art's East Building, where several mainstays of the museum's 20th-century collection can be found. More specifically, in front of an untitled 1953 abstraction by color-field painter Mark Rothko.

"Every time I go there, I make it a point to . . . sit in front of it and stare at it for a while," she says. "I don't know what it is."

Could it be the colors: a hot pink block atop a blackish blotch, from beneath which peeks a stripe of orange? Superficially, Yang says, it's simple, even simplistic. Yet how shallow can it really be, if she's able to come back to it, again and again, to drink it in? "Exactly," she says. "That's how I feel about that piece."

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART EAST BUILDING Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). Open Monday-Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays from 11 to 6; closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Free.

ERIC SCHAEFFER | Artistic Director, Signature Theatre

Eric Schaeffer doesn't go for the obvious. When asked about his favorite thing in an area museum, the acclaimed theater director says he's tempted to pick Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," on view in the "Treasures of American History" display at the National Air and Space Museum. "But that's too on the nose," he says with a laugh. "Every gay person in America is going to go, ' Oh. Dorothy's red shoes.' "

Rather, he cites the National Air and Space Museum's Lockheed Martin Imax Theater (along with the 1976 film "To Fly!," still in heavy rotation, along with newer titles) as perhaps the most purely theatrical experience he has ever had.

"It's not about people or anything else," Schaeffer says. "It's just about you, yourself, taking this journey and going somewhere."

NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 877-932-4629. Museum open daily, except Christmas, from 10 to 5:30. Imax screenings begin at 10:20, with the last one at 5. $8.50, seniors $7.50, ages 2 to 12 $7.


As someone with an eye for great design (she majored in it in college), blogger, writer and founder Ana Marie Cox wishes there were something like New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Washington. The National Building Museum comes close, she says, but she can't quite come up with anything to single out there.

She'll just have to settle for . . . Butterstick the panda.

Come again? The National Zoo's star attraction (officially known as Tai Shan) may be cute, but art? Cox, who joined the Friends of the National Zoo in 2005 solely for the privilege of being among the first to see the now-2-year-old fur ball, says yes. Citing the cub's attractive black and white packaging, she also says that, like most fine art, Butterstick contributes little to the world besides his presence. "He literally does nothing but eat," she says. That voracious drive to consume without producing, Cox jokes, is too, too Washington.

NATIONAL ZOO 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW (Metro: Woodley Park-Adams Morgan, Cleveland Park). 202-633-4800 (TTY: 202-673-7800). Grounds open daily, except Christmas, from 6 to 6; buildings from 10 to 4:30. Grounds close at 4:30 (buildings at 4) for the ZooLights holiday light display Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 30. Free.

ROBERT WIEDMAIER | Chef-Owner, Marcel's and Brasserie Beck

It's no surprise to hear that Robert Wiedmaier is a fan of Edouard Manet's "The Railway" at the National Gallery of Art. Not if you've eaten at his Brasserie Beck restaurant, designed to evoke a European railway station. "I've got this thing with railroads," admits the German-born chef of Belgian descent. "It just kind of reminds me of when I was a young kid, taking the train from Brussels to the Netherlands when I was going to culinary school."

The painting, of a red-haired woman waiting at Paris's Gare Saint-Lazare station, also "brings back old worlds, which I really like," he says.

Looking at the woman in the painting always makes him think of his mother -- cue the "awww! "-- from whom he has said he learned much of his cooking.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART WEST BUILDING Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). Open Monday-Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays from 11 to 6; closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Free.

CAROLYN HAX | Advice Columnist, The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax once fancied herself a cultural sophisticate. All that changed, she says, when the "Tell Me About It" columnist became the mother of three children with short attention spans. Her museum-hopping these days? "I do them at about five miles an hour, and it's all Air and Space."

Hence her current object of fascination: the Apollo lunar module (conveniently located near the entrance to the downtown museum's food court). Describing it as looking like "something we made out of tuna cans and tin foil," Hax says that seeing it reminds her of the "absolutely astonishing courage" of the Apollo astronauts. "I wouldn't climb into that thing to go get milk," she says, "and they were out there in space in this thing."

NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Open daily, except Christmas, from 10 to 5:30. Free.

MARIE JOHNS | Business Executive; 2006 D.C. Mayoral Candidate

Washington is a city stuffed with stuffy statuary. Has anyone ever counted just how many guys on horseback there are?

That's why Marie Johns loves Barry Flanagan's "Thinker on a Rock," or, as she calls it, the "edgy bunny." Holding pride of place on the Seventh Street side of the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden, the whimsical bronze statue depicts a skinny, oversize hare in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker." One perfect weekend afternoon, during an impromptu excursion downtown, Johns says, she and her husband discovered Flanagan's "joyful" piece.

Like a tonic to every dull memorial ever made, its nose-thumbing irreverence toward the stodgy stayed with her. "That rabbit," she says, "it just always makes me smile."

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART SCULPTURE GARDEN Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). Open Monday-Saturday from 10 to 5, Sundays from 11 to 6; closed Christmas and New Year's Day. Free.

TED LEONSIS | Owner, Washington Capitals

"It's humanity, with the biggest brain."

That's how Ted Leonsis neatly sums up the appeal of the Albert Einstein Memorial Statue on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences. "I see kids climbing on it and pictures being taken of it with people all over it every time I drive on Constitution Avenue," he says. "It makes Einstein -- our greatest mind -- a real person, with humanity."

There's another reason the sculpture by Robert Berks has meaning for him. Tucked away at the offices of Leonsis's Washington Capitals is another Berks bust . . . of Ted Leonsis.

Rewind to 2000: Berks had donated his portraiture services to the Best Buddies Ball, a fundraising auction for people with intellectual disabilities. Leonsis, who chairs the annual event, opened the bidding and promptly won.

"Where else would I put it?" asks Leonsis, who describes his Berks as about half the size of the Kennedy Center's JFK bust by the artist. His likeness, he says, is "scary," but nothing like the feeling of being immortalized in bronze. "You have this bust that looks like it should be in a museum, but you're alive."

NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES 2101 Constitution Ave. NW. 202-334-2000., then search for "Albert Einstein Memorial Statue." On view daily. Free.

TOM TOLES | Editorial Cartoonist, The Washington Post

As a political caricaturist, Tom Toles says he was wowed by the collection of Honoré Daumier's satirical portraits of 19th-century French government officials on view at the National Gallery of Art. But as a hobbyist gardener frustrated in his attempt to, in his words, "make a [expletive] little scrap of back yard into a nice environment," he was absolutely blown away by his visits to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

"Oh, my God," he says of the U.S. National Arboretum's collection of miniature trees, some centuries old. "It's phenomenal. It. Is. Phenomenal."

Not widely known outside the bonsai enthusiast community, the museum houses about 150 specimens of Japanese bonsai and the art form's Chinese precursor, penjing. "You occasionally see a bonsai and think, 'That's pretty cool,' " says Toles, who adds that, despite his lack of expertise, he knows when to be astonished. "This is like a masterpiece set of them."

U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM 3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-2726. open daily, except Christmas, New Year's Day and other federal holidays, from 10 to 3:30 (from 10 to 4, beginning Jan. 2). Free.

TONY GITTENS | Executive Director, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Director, Filmfest DC

It may seem odd, but the man running the agency responsible for such high-profile public art projects as 2002's "Party Animals" and 2004's "PandaMania" has a soft spot for the Kreeger Museum, a place where, as Tony Gittens puts it, "you almost have to make an appointment to go and see." (No "almost" about it. You do have to make an appointment -- at least during the week.)

Gittens calls the private museum in the city's Foxhall neighborhood a hidden treasure, boasting works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Renoir and others. But that's not the only reason he likes it. The 1967 building's clean, postmodernist design by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster make the structure itself a kind of walk-through sculpture.

Better yet: The out-of-the-way setting, with huge picture windows overlooking a 5 1/2 -acre wooded lot, sets it apart from the Mall museums. "I was there one day," says the Brooklyn-bred Gittens, with a tone approaching awe, "and there were deer playing in the woods."

KREEGER MUSEUM 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. 202-337-3050. For reservations, call 202-338-3552 or e-mail Open Tuesday-Friday by reservation only for tours at 10:30 and 1:30, Saturdays from 10 to 4 without reservation (optional tours at 10:30, noon and 2; closed Christmas and New Year's Day). $8, students and seniors $5, members free.

STEPHEN JOEL TRACHTENBERG | President Emeritus and Professor of Public Service, George Washington University

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg loves Winston Churchill.

"I am crazy about -- it's not a great work of art -- but I am crazy about the Winston Churchill statue in front of the British Embassy," he says. It's a funny sort of thing, even he admits: nine feet tall, with the English statesman's trademark V-for-victory sign.

Some of the appeal is personal. After working as a special assistant to the U.S. education commissioner during the Lyndon Johnson administration, Trachtenberg spent time studying at the University of Cambridge's Churchill College.

Some of it is symbolic. One look at Churchill sends the message that "in the darkest of times, one looks to the future, one looks optimistically ahead," Trachtenberg says.

Sure, some might say that that message, like others linked to the famous dead -- so many of whom are memorialized in bronze all over this city -- is a hoary chestnut. And they're right, Trachtenberg says. "A lot of them are cliches, but they are important cliches nevertheless."

BRITISH EMBASSY 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-588-6500. On view daily. Free.


Mayor Adrian M. Fenty calls the National Portrait Gallery "a great place to visit," but is that a personal recommendation for the recently renovated Smithsonian museum or a tourism slogan?

When it comes to his own tastes, he's much more a man of the people. "I would say I tend to look at the murals through the neighborhoods," he says, rattling off several in Woodley Park, Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant, near where he grew up. "I tend to pay attention to art in the neighborhoods."

Got a favorite? "Mayors don't usually go around picking favorites," he dodges, artfully.

Suddenly he remembers a piece at 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW, not far from his Crestwood home. Called "Saint Dennard: The Edifying Spirit," it's a memorial sculpture to Cleveland L. Dennard, late president of the Washington Technical Institute, a precursor to the University of the District of Columbia.

A blend of Western abstraction and African imagery, D.C. artist Allen Uzikee Nelson's work also points, like a weather vane, toward Washington's Northwest and Southeast quadrants, unifying the city's two most economically disparate sections. The sculpture's lower half suggests a tool; on top, a stylized face, representing Dennard's belief in educating both the hands and the heads of the District's people.

The theme of unity appeals to the politician in Fenty, who remembers voting for approval of the piece way back when he was a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. But the art critic in him likes it, too. "It's also," he says, "a great use of triangular space."

SAINT DENNARD: THE EDIFYING SPIRIT East side of 16th Street NW at Arkansas Avenue. On view daily. Free.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company