Monday, December 6, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The one-room Transformer gallery near Washington's Logan Circle.
by Carol Joynt

When the leadership of Congress changes hands from one party to the other, the pastime here becomes finding signs of what it will mean. This past week brought a doozy of a cultural bellwether, a throw down that pitted the giant Smithsonian Institution against a one-room art gallery, with an assist from John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Arguably, the tiny art gallery came out on top.

“It's fear, plain and simple,” said a board member of the Transformer gallery after the Smithsonian’s director, Wayne Clough, booted “A Fire In My Belly,” a 1987 video work by David Wojnarowicz that was to be shown as part of the larger “Hide/Seek” exhibition, a gay-themed examination of “difference and desire” in art, which runs until February 13 at the National Portrait Gallery. Transformer immediately gave the video a home in its front window, calling it an “important work” by Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. The space also organized an evening protest march on the Portrait Gallery.

The Transformer gallery up close.
An anonymous Transformer board member with the placard used in the gallery's protest march.
James Alefantis, head of Transformer’s board, sent Clough a pointed letter, asking him to reverse his “mistaken” expulsion of the video. “You must know, but in the event you do not, we ... are here to tell you your right-wing critics, including in Congress, know nothing and care nothing about art. They care not a wit about freedom of expression, or free speech.”

While he privately thanked Alfefantis for the message, as of yesterday evening, Clough had made no public comment on his decision.

The banning of the Wojnarowicz work happened after the Catholic League complained about eleven seconds that show ants crawling on a crucifix. The organization’s president called the clip “hate speech.” Support for the Catholic League came from Republican conservatives Boehner and Cantor, who will be, respectively, the new Speaker of the House and Majority Leader. Boehner’s spokesman said: "American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy. While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money."

Alefantis, in his letter to Clough, urged, “Do not be afraid of the ants .... We do not need another phony culture war.” The 198-member Association of Art Museum Directors also rebuked Clough, citing “unwarranted and uninformed censorship.”

The Hide/Seek show, which spans decades and includes works by George Bellows, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, Jasper Johns, Walker Evans, and Annie Liebovitz, was supported by a wellspring of private funds. Nonetheless, the Smithsonian is reliant on federal dollars.

Opinions critical of the Clough decision came from disparate sources. Washington Post art reviewer Blake Gopnik invoked the word “cowards.” Sports commentator Tony Kornheiser, on his ESPN show, said, “One thing that is absolutely clear in this is the cave-in of the Portrait Gallery. The total cave-in, which has to be for fear of losing funds.” One of Kornheiser’s on-air colleagues called the Smithsonian’s hierarchy “art sissies.”

For the art world in general, and Washington in particular, the episode brought back vivid memories of Robert Mapplethorpe and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1989, under pressure from conservative groups and members of Congress, the Corcoran cancelled a Mapplethorpe exhibition for fear of “adversely affecting” funding. The museum’s director later apologized and also resigned but the Corcoran has failed, so far, to fully regain credibility. The Smithsonian can hardly afford to become another Corcoran, but the process of federal funding is fraught with harsh and compromising realities.
Note on the window exhibit: "Censored by the Smithsonian."
The controversial eleven seconds.
Reporters watch the Wojnarowicz from outside Transformer gallery.
On Friday I stopped by both affected galleries. Transformer was not open yet, but people walked by, stopped at the front window and watched a few minutes of the video. A TV reporter waited with her camera. The staff said they were “overwhelmed” with emails and phone calls, including some angry threats. At the National Portrait Gallery the “Hide/Seek” exhibition was well attended. Men and women, including families, some with baby strollers, milled among the works.

While the dispute may boost turnout, don’t expect to see Congressmen Boehner or Cantor at “Hide/Seek.” In fact, both men have asked for the whole show to be dismantled. Reflecting their point of view is Deborah Simmons of The Washington Times: “To be honest, I have neither seen the exhibit nor watched the 30-minute video in its entirety. But I did get the picture while watching a TV news program, and even then, I didn't particularly care to view any public or private ‘work of art’ that makes such a despicable depiction.”
The National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian.
The exhibition's poster. The National Portrait Gallery viewed from its Kogod Courtyard.
School buses line up outside the National Portrait Gallery.

There were encouraging signs of the holiday spirit in Washington last week. Citronelle in Georgetown put up its lights and tossed a lively holiday party for the restaurant’s friends to let them know it is expanding bar hours to open mid-afternoon. This is either a sign that things are getting better and people are spending more, or that they are getting worse and folks need to start drinking earlier in the day. Either way, the party was festive with lots of good drinks and food from chef and Santa doppelgänger Michel Richard, who greeted his guests.
Citronelle restaurant, decorated for the season.
The popular Citronelle bar before the early evening rush.
A block over, the Four Seasons Hotel hosted a party to celebrate the 5th annual Georgetown Jingle, which benefits pediatric programs at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi cancer clinic. The Jingle’s principal feature are Christmas trees arrayed in the hotel’s lobby, each decorated by noted Washington interior designers.

Because it was literally a party in a lobby, guests chatted, sipped sparkling wine and nibbled lobster and duck canapés while hotel patrons passed through, including the Saudi Ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, who tried to conduct a private meeting in the midst of the merriment, and members of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, who were checking in. A hotel official said, “You aren’t supposed to notice them.” Ah, well, that’s tough when a half dozen of the men were about seven feet tall.
The Four Seasons Hotel.
The Georgetown Jingle party in the lobby, with arriving basketball players and the odd diplomatic rendezvous.
Four Seasons chef Charles Froke stood proudly by his pastry masterpiece: a gingerbread recreation of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Christmas cookies he served were popular, especially with the children, some of whom are or were Lombardi patients.

The designers who created the trees—with the help of some of the young patients--included Hannah Milman, David Iatesta, Shazalynn Cavin-Winfrey, Samantha Friedman, Susan Donelson, Suzanne Price, Nestor Santa-Cruz, Caryn Cramer, Karen Luria, David Herchik, Sandra Meyers and Camille Saum.
Charles Froke and his gingerbread Basilica.
The edible Basilica up close.
Gingerbread cookies from the Four Seasons Hotel kitchen. A Jingle Jester for interior designer Karen Luria.
Eleven-year-old Noah, in green, lost a leg to cancer but is five years out of treatment. He poses with his family and interior designer David Herchik, in gray.
Sparkling wine with a festive hue. Detail of a tree by Hannah Milman for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
A "Christmas Tree" by interior designer Suzanne Price.
Carolers welcome Georgetown Jingle and hotel guests in the Four Seasons lobby.
The Georgetown Jingle party.
The Embassy Series hosted its annual holiday extravaganza Friday evening at the Embassy of Luxembourg. This particular residence was the fitting location because the evening celebrated Irving Berlin’s hit musical “Call Me Madam,” which starred Ethel Merman and was based on legendary Washington hostess Perle Mesta and her tour as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

The holiday spirit abounded as guests arrived to be greeted with smiles from Ambassador Jean-Paul Senninger and his wife, Louise Akerblom, and Carols from a choir of the University of Maryland. Naturally, among the holiday tunes were Berlin’s “White Christmas” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” The guests joined in for a round of “Happy Birthday” for Ambassador Senning, who turned 51.

The evening's program.
Singers Klea Blackhurst, Angela Marchese, David Blalok, and Lawrence Redmond shared top billing for the evening’s Berlin concert, but the star was Berlin’s oldest daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, who belies her 80+years with energy, wit and a sharp memory. She didn’t sing, but she had personality to spare.

“They need a Perle Mesta today,” Barrett said of Washington society. “People don’t remember her.” Mesta, who moved to Washington when she was a 50-year-old widow, was an heiress, politically active, a friend of President Harry S Truman, who gave her the Luxembroug post, and an indefatigable party-giver. She said it's Mesta who made “Call Me Madam” work. “Hopefully these songs mean something to Washingtonians.” Barrett took a moment to think if Washington today had anyone who comes close to being Perle Mesta. “I think maybe only Sally Quinn,” she said of the writer and hostess married to Ben Bradlee.

“I’m looking forward to the evening and all the singing,” she said. The repertoire “is a subject I know something about.” She said it’s impossible for her to pick a favorite Irving Berlin song, though she has a top 20. That list includes “Blue Skies,” which her father wrote when she was born. Barrett said the Berlin “family theme song” was “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In The Morning.”

The family home at 17 Beekman Place is where the composer wrote “Call Me Madam” about Mesta’s turn as an ambassador to Luxembourg. The Berlins lived there for 40 years. Coincidentally it now belongs to Luxembourg and is the territory’s New York mission.
The Embassy of Luxembourg.
Guests at the Luxembourg Embassy relax with champagne before the concert.
Jerome Barry organized the evening. Guests included Irving Berlin’s granddaughter, Mary Ellin Lerner, and his great grandson, Benjamin Lerner. Also, Ambassador Jan Matthysen of Belgium, Ambassador Claudia Fritsche of Liechtenstein, Ambassador Jonas Hafström, Alison Adler, Lisette Barry, Michael Battista, Cheryl Beversdorff, Dennis Siebert, Ted Chapin, Clark Todd, John Dassoulas, Judith Ramage, Alice Elmore, Barbara and Leslie Fenton, Anna Gawel, Bert Fink, Jack James, Yolanda Mamone, Bill Outlaw, Kathy Kemper, Paul and Brenda Pascal, Ian and Judy Portnoy, John Reiser, Joyce Hagel Silverman, Charles Silverman, Morris Simon, Judy Teske, Richard and Sandy Timmons, Ziona Tuchler, Stephen and Ann Black, Jan Duplain.
Jerome Barry, Ambassador Senniger, and Mary Ellin Barrett have a conversation before the concert.
Jean-Paul Senniger, Mary Ellin Barrett, and Louise Akerblom.
University of Maryland Carolers.
Seats being saved. Reserved for the ambassador.
Ambassador Senniger greets guests.
Perle Mesta, in art and photos, was on display throughout the embassy.
A photograph of Perle Mesta.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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