Week 11: Arts Club of Washington

Non-profit mission: The mission of the Arts Club of Washington is to generate public appreciation for and participation in the arts in the Nation’s capital, through ongoing educational programs that include seminars, literary events, art exhibitions and musical and theatrical performances. The club also is dedicated to promoting the appreciation of historic preservation through study, restoration and the preservation of the historic James Monroe House.

In honor of Inauguration, the Express newspaper on Friday published a list of places in the area that are connected to each of the previous 43 presidents. Goody! I love this sort of thing!

The list includes memorials, museums, businesses, and spots where pertinent buildings once stood. Four of my previous Weekly Museum Visit locations were listed: Washington Masonic Memorial (for George Washington), National Museum of Health and Medicine (for James Garfield), Wilson House (for Woodrow Wilson), and National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum (for Calvin Coolidge).

There were also some cultural sites on the list I had never visited, so I decided to go to one of them for my museum visit this week. I chose the Arts Club of Washington, located in Monroe House (also known as Abbe House), in honor of James Monroe.

I recently had a discussion with a friend about the differences between museums and art galleries – and whether galleries should count as WMVs. I said that the main distinction is commercialism. I do not mean that moneymaking inherently disqualifies a site for my purposes. One of my previous WMVs was to a for-profit museum, and some art galleries (including the Arts Club) are non-profit.

Rather, the disqualification of galleries would be based on the different ways the two kinds of institutions interact with objects and visitors. A museum collects, studies, conserves, exhibits, and interprets objects (or living specimens). A gallery exhibits and sells objects. The distinction becomes blurred as some galleries add a more interpretive bent to their exhibits, as art spaces use facilities for a variety of artistic and educational purposes including the exhibition of local art for sale, and as living art museums allow more direct opportunities for visitors both to learn from and to buy from artists.

In the case of the Arts Club, I decided to count the site because, although the art on the walls is available for purchase, the house itself is a National Historic Landmark, and is preserved by the organization. Even the photography policy echoes this dual purpose: I was told I could take pictures of the house (what I think of as the “museum part”), but not the art (the “gallery part”).

Arts Club of Washington

Arts Club of Washington

The house was built in the first decade of the 19th century. It is a brick row house with dormer windows on the top, lots of staircases inside, and a private garden in the back. James Monroe lived in the house as Secretary of State and for the first six months of his presidency, and inside the house, one can see a portrait of Monroe and plaques commemorating his diplomatic work in Greece.

Today, the Arts Club also uses the space inside the brick row house next door. On the underground level is a door where the artist-volunteer felt a draft coming in: “Oh, that’s the tunnel that goes across the street. I think the slaves used it.”

The experience of viewing art here did feel different from the more familiar experience of viewing art in a museum. When I arrived, I was greeted with, “Are you the wedding planner?” Everyone who was working there did make me feel welcome, though I also felt a little in the way of the couple who was there to plan a wedding. (I can never stand to be in people’s way.)

Each work of art was labeled with the artist, title, and price. There was one label next to an empty space where a customer must have seen a piece and bought it. Reading the artists’ statements helped me make sense of the art, and in the last part of the building, I met one of the artists herself. She showed me her pieces and talked about them a little, but she mostly talked about the Arts Club: what it had done for her and what it does for the community.

What is your take on museums versus art galleries? Should galleries be counted for the purposes of Weekly Museum Visits?


January’s blog theme is Communication Is Architecture.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Lists of Museums, Museums and Holidays, Weekly Museum Visits Part III and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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