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ACW History

Arts Club of Washington
Founded 1914

Purchased its current home at 2017 I St NW in 1916

Posted August 21, 2021 by Burnett Thompson

I started performing for private events and concerts at the Arts Club of Washington (ACW) in 1981. As I met various members, I was often encouraged to join the club. I resisted, as I didn’t see that the membership aligned with my goals of producing jazz and classical concerts. At that time, I was beginning a 17 year stint (4,000 nights) as house pianist at the renowned West End Café, and directing the Foggy Bottom Chamber Ensemble. FBCE was comprised of National Symphony Orchestra members and coached by the conductor, Mstislav Rostropovich. I was also bringing many of Washington’s most gifted artists into the West End Café, including Keeter Betts, Chris Vadala, Steve Novosel, Mike Smith, Charlie Young, et al, in performances that spanned from 1981 to 1997. I mention this here because while busy with these activities, the Arts Club did not appear to be a viable partner for my projects.

That opinion changed in 2014 when my solo piano series at the White House Historical Association, albeit sold out, lost its home at Decatur House Museum. I quickly joined the Arts Club and moved the series there, now called Piano Jazz at the Arts Club. It is the most prestigious solo jazz piano series in the country, if not the world, and has featured many of the most prominent and enduring artists of the international jazz world.

As a member of ACW, I began to confirm my earlier perceptions about the club, which was labeled “eccentric” by the Washington Post. A disconcerting observation was that this was a white club in a city that in recent memory was 70% black. I recently joined the History Committee of ACW just for the purpose of looking at the history of Blacks at the Arts Club. At a recent meeting with board members, I was told that the historical art collection of hundreds of pieces in the ACW’s archive included no works by Black artists. The first Black member of ACW was the great Met baritone, Todd Duncan, brought in as an honorary member in 1983. Contemporary witnesses said there was resistance by some members to his induction. The first Blacks to apply to ACW did so in 1989, and as of this writing there are 4 Black members on the 300 member roster.

The Harlem Renaissance reverberated in Washington, DC, in large part because numerous luminaries of that scene traveled between the two cities. Howard University became an intellectual mirror of the Harlem scene, beginning with the hiring of Alain Locke, who announced the era with “The New Negro” in 1925 an essay and anthology that included a host of writers, poets, architects and historians, many of who had links to Howard and the Washington scene. The 1995 book “The Guide to Black Washington” reveals block to block, house by house, the history of Black artists, musicians, educators and political activities in Washington, going back to the 19th century. How could all of these amazing people and movements have been occurring without any reflection in an organization called the Arts Club of Washington?

As one reads from the Alain Locke 1925 anthology and the history by Howard professor James Porter’s “Modern Negro Art”, it is clear that ACW did not in fact reflect the arts of Washington, DC, but rather ignored them at best, repressed them at worst.

Copyright Burnett Thompson Music, LLC 2021