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Arts and Culture

Style and Sparkle Mark Katzen Arts Center Groundbreaking

By Linda McHugh

Cyrus Katzen at the groundbreaking of the Katzen Arts Center

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

With an evening of style and sparkle, American University broke ground on the building that symbolizes AU’s future as a major player on the Washington arts scene.

As cars pulled up to the Nebraska Hall entrance, valets opened doors for passengers who slipped into Nebraska Hall, behind whose homely facade lay a dream come true. Valet parking at Nebraska Hall? It’s not as big a stretch as you’d imagine in an evening that represented more than a decade of imagining the night when AU would break ground on an arts center. In 2000, Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen gave a naming gift of $15 million to the university for the Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center, which when completed will be a striking building that sits adjacent to Ward Circle on the site of the recently demolished Cassell building. The arts center will provide gallery space for AU’s Watkins collection, the $5 million Katzen collection that is part of the gift, art studios, offices, lecture halls, and performance space.

When Cyrus Katzen invited the audience of 450 back in 2004 saying, “See you all at the opening. You’re all invited,” the crowd had no trouble imagining a return engagement. Those celebrating with AU and the Katzens included city officials, AU deans, trustees, benefactors, faculty, students, arts supporters from the metro area, and friends and family of Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen.

The evening’s magic began in the corridors of Nebraska Hall, where guests waiting to congratulate the Katzens were reminded why they were gathered by the displayed works of MFA students, including Madeline Adams’s ’04 depiction of Ward Circle.

A beaming AU President Benjamin Ladner boomed, “You thought it would never happen. It’s here,” and then explained that AU “started the long climb [toward an arts center] 12 years ago.” Over the years, generous gifts were made, but it was the Katzen’s $10 million naming gift for the building and $5 million art collection that enabled the university to engage architects Einhorn, Yaffee and Prescott, apply for permits, and finally, break ground.

The enthusiastic audience paid tribute to the Katzens with two standing ovations.
Also celebrating the evening with AU and the Katzens were Virginia Hayes Williams, mother of D. C. mayor Anthony Williams; the ambassadors to the United States from Thailand, Slovenia, and Finland; District council members Harold Brazil and Phil Mendelson ’81, and AU trustees Edmund Carr ’62, Pamela Deese ’80, ’83, A. Robyn Mathias ’64, ’92, Leslie Bains ’65, Robert Pincus ’71, and A.W. “Pete” Smith. The evening also brought out long-time AU benefactors Howard and Sondra Bender, Robert Kogod ’62, Jack Kay, and Sylvia and Harold Greenberg.

Introducing the evening’s distinguished speakers, Ladner promised that, though over the years city residents may have slotted AU as one kind of institution, “AU is on the verge of something very different.”

The speakers agreed. Congressman Tom Davis, R-Va., vice-chair of the D.C. subcommittee, carried a tribute from President George W. Bush. Trustee Leslie Bains said she “couldn’t be prouder” that this building will be a showcase for AU and the city which “will change the face of AU and the entire community.”

Dorothy McSweeney, chair of the D. C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, received her own applause for bringing 70 Party Animals, “half our herd,” to AU earlier this fall. McSweeney praised the “focus this university has on the arts,” applauding the new building as a “wonderful addition to the arts in D.C.”

As with any groundbreaking, shovels were distributed for the ceremonial “dig.” Those wielding gold-plated spades included Jack Cassell, whose father was AU basketball legend “Pop” Cassell, for whom the long-serving, “temporary” World War II Cassell building had been named.

In remarks made prior to the ceremonial hoists and portrait taking, Cyrus Katzen, with a catch in his throat, said: “Myrtle and I are very humble. AU is a great institution, and we are proud to be part of it. Myrtle and I derive a great deal of satisfaction from art. [We] have an eclectic collection; a great many pieces I would classify as fun art—pieces by Picasso, Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jean Dubuffet, and folk art, and works by D.C. greats, [including] Sam Gilliam, Ken Noland, Gene Davis.” Then, the twinkle in his eye and chuckle in his voice returning, he added, “collecting art is really an illness, and probably an incurable one. We will start all over again once we [open this museum.]”

The evening included a video tribute so true-to-life, warm, and entertaining that Cyrus Katzen’s taped remarks twice drew audience laughter.

The American University Chorus, directed by Daniel Abraham, performed four pieces. Caleen Sinnette Jennings, performing arts, CAS, read Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like a Star.” The formalities over, guests lingered at the reception, and a few key people summed up the evening’s sentiment. “We’re Uptown tonight!” said vice president of campus life Gail Hanson. “When it’s finished, I’ll do whatever I can,” said Myrtle Katzen. “I’ll be a docent.” Asked what this evening meant to him, her husband, Cyrus, replied, “This is what you live for . . . your friends.”