By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; E05
The cultural audiences in Washington walk in and out of buildings emblazoned with the names Mead and Kogod.
Those families have made tremendous financial contributions to the arts landscape, and they are critical players in how Washington has blossomed into a first-class destination for theater and cultural spaces. Note the soaring Kogod Courtyard, joining the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Note the light-filled Mead Lobby at Signature Theatre. Now the two names have come together at Arena Stage. The families are major donors to the theater's the Next Stage Campaign, which has raised $108 million toward its goal of $125 million. The Mead name is above the entire complex. Within the building, a new theater that will nurture American plays has been christened for the Kogods.
Jaylee Montague Mead, 81, a retired mathematician and astronomer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, grew up in Clayton, N.C., and found a sparse theater scene in Washington when she first came in 1956.
"I joined the Foreign Service because I wanted to see the world, then I decided to stay in Washington," Mead said in an interview a few days ago. "For theater, the only thing was the National and the Warner. They imported theater. So I went to the Old Vat, which is today's Arena, and they had regional theater."
Her love for the stage, and her understanding of the challenges for actors, was solidified when she joined an employee musical group at the Goddard Space Flight Center in the early 1960s. Mead started at NASA in 1959, one of a handful of women. "There weren't many at the time, that's true. But I had majored in mathematics and when NASA was formed, they had to find more mathematicians," she said.
Across the hall from her Goddard office was a physicist named Gilbert Mead. "He was so fastidious and that was appealing to me," she said of Gilbert, who had grown up in Wisconsin, where his family owned Consolidated Papers. At Goddard, Gilbert was also part of the musical group, playing piano and directing the music. Jaylee's first role was Babe in "The Pajama Game," and the theater group went through the whole catalog of Broadway musicals. The Meads were married in 1968.
Drawn to Studio Theatre's appeal to build a new theater, the Meads started donating modest amounts to local theaters in the 1980s. "That was about $5,000," Mead said. And they joined the boards of Studio and Arena. When Gilbert's father died, his inheritance enabled them to donate amounts that the theaters acknowledge as making a huge difference. Their contributions to local groups totaled $50 million. Gilbert died in 2007 at age 76.
They were early supporters of the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, its nightly free performance program. Jaylee was on the selection committee to choose the new artistic director at Studio. But she loves sitting back in the orchestra, just like everyone else, enjoying the musicals at Arena and Signature, and the contemporary work at Studio. After donating $35 million to Arena's campaign, she said, "The greatest joy is to give while you live, so you can see what is happening with your money."
Robert Kogod, 79, president of Charles E. Smith Management, has contributed heavily to many academic, artistic and Jewish causes in the region. The Smith company, founded by the father of Kogod's wife Arlene, is one of the largest real estate developers in the Washington area. .A member of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents since 2005, Kogod is chairman of its facilities committee. The Smithsonian commands some of Washington's prime real estate along the Mall, visited by 30 million people a year and the repairs needed are estimated at $73 million.
When the Smithsonian wanted to have a world-class architectural statement at the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Kogods stepped in. With their $25 million donation, the Smithsonian was able to have famed architect Sir Norman Foster build a glass canopy over what is now the Kogod Courtyard.
At the time, Kogod, who declines to discuss his philanthropy publicly, said: "Arlene and I are happy to make this contribution because it combines our feelings for the Smithsonian, our city and our country with our interests in the fine and decorative arts and building design."
Those who know him are betting that he hasn't changed that sentiment with Arena.