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ACW History

Arts Club of Washington
Founded 1915

African-American Music, Arts and Letters at the Arts Club of Washington

The Background
Notes by Burnett Thompson

The Arts Club of Washington, founded in 1915 in Washington, DC, has assumed a role in the artistic history of Washington, including visual arts, architecture, literary and musical arts. The Club was highly praised from its inception, well into the 1920’s, for playing a significant and singular part in the arts community.

The question has arisen whether the literary, visual, musical and architectural arts in the African-American population of the city was ever represented at ACW, and the evidence thus far shows that it was not. Given that an unprecedented explosion of artistic activity took place in the African-American community from 1915, especially in Harlem, and also in Washington, it is a puzzler as to why none of this activity made its way through the doors of ACW. Howard University, the most prominent HBCU institution in the country, became the destination for numerous ranking cultural leaders, who were offered faculty positions. Harlem Renaissance spokesperson Alain Locke was professor of philosophy at Howard, and James A. Jordan became director of the Art Department, among many others. On the other hand, Arts Club president George Zolnay, of this time period, gained the moniker “Sculptor of the Confederacy”. He completed commissions for the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other confederate luminaries which still stand today, while maintaining a close business and personal relationship with Davis’s widow.

If we look at ACW history from 1915 to 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, there is apparently no artistic activity at ACW from African-Americans. By 1964, African Americans were at the upper echelon of the world artistic community. Duke Ellington, born a few blocks away, is arguably the most important musician of the 20th century, again with no connection to ACW. The 1983 induction of Met baritone Todd Duncan as an honorary member was the first trace of African-Americans belonging to ACW, and it was many years after that African Americans chose to apply to the club. To this day, people of color represent about 2% of the membership in a city that has been as much as 70% African American.

American cultural institutions are currently scrambling to compensate for ignoring non-white artists, and are loading their programming with African-American, native American, Asian American, and Hispanic artists. The Arts Club is no exception, bringing non-white programming to the largely white club membership, while ignoring the neglect of its 100 year legacy.

The Solution

1. Develop a library devoted to African American contributions to the arts, specifically from 1915 to 1964, and more generally speaking, up to the present. Substantial historical resources existed by 1925.

2. Create a series of symposia, lectures, exhibits that cast light on this time period in Washington, DC. A. Presenters could be individuals from institutions including Howard, UDC, Georgetown, American, and George Washington universities. B. Presenters could be invited from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other entities that have relevant resources.

3. Create a performance arts series specifically devoted to music, poetry, theatre, and literature, focused on the period from 1915 to 1964.

4. Examine the reasons why ACW did not include these vast artistic resources.

5. Examine the reasons why ACW continues to nurture a white membership and audience.

6. Examine the future of ACW, specifically what needs to be done to represent the artistic history of its namesake, Washington, DC.

Four books that provide a starting point:

The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, 1925

The Guide to Black Washington, Fitzpatrick & Goodwin, 1994

Modern Negro Art, James A. Porter, 1943

Beyond Category: The Life And Genius Of Duke Ellington, John Hasse, 1993

Copyright Burnett Thompson Music, LLC 2021