- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2001

Alan and Irene Wurtzel debated whether to accept a Patrons of the Arts award from the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington next Thursday at the organizations gala in the JW Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"We looked around and saw other people who are even more involved, have given more money, spent more of their life on this kind of cause and are more deserving. We talked and talked about it," Mrs. Wurtzel says.

The Cultural Alliance, founded in 1978 to ensure that the arts survive and prosper, is a nonprofit membership organization serving artists and arts organizations. It bills itself as the nation´s largest regional arts service organization.

"We know it is a good organization. We get their newsletter," Mrs. Wurtzel says.

Her husband adds, "We thought it was important to them (the alliance), and so we agreed" to accept the award.

The alliance is heavy with talent from the business community. Among its programs is one that allows business people to advise arts groups in public relations, marketing, accounting, fund raising, computer networking and long-range planning.

Those it is honoring Thursday night, in addition to the Wurtzels, are Norman Scribner, founder and music director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, as an arts founder; Fannie Mae Foundation, as a business patron of the arts; and Arena Stage in Southwest, for distinguished service to the arts.

The Wurtzels decidedly are a team. They estimate that they go to art and theater events at least three nights a week and spend a minimum of eight hours a month on various board matters.

She is a playwright and teacher long identified with art and social causes and also a board member of Arena Stage and Theatre J, which deals with the Jewish experience. A lawyer and businessman, he is former chief executive officer and now vice chairman of Circuit City Stores. He also is a trustee of the Phillips Collection and was active in developing the private gallery´s expansion plans.

Together, the Wurtzels contribute financially to the National Gallery of Art, Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, Studio Theatre, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the Ellington Fund and the Shakespeare Theatre, according to the alliance.

Mrs. Wurtzel was heavily involved in the search two years ago that led to Molly Smith becoming artistic director of Arena Stage. Her previous honors include a CINE Golden Eagle award for the documentary film history of the American labor movement called "The Dream Continues." She also has won a Margo Jones award for plays. Her musical, "Onward Victoria," about the life of feminist Victoria Woodhull, was staged off-Broadway and elsewhere.

"She was always interested in arts organizations. She was writing plays for her playmates in the fifth grade," Mr. Wurtzel says proudly.

Their homes are on R Street near Dupont Circle and in Delaplane, Va., where they spend weekends.

The couple met in 1986 through mutual friends. It is a second marriage for each. "We do a little talking and zero in on ," Mrs. Wurtzel says. "Basically, after we do some talking, we find our instincts work alike. We frequently agree on our opinion of a play or art."

She has lived in Philadelphia and Chicago but says that "next to D.C., the city I know best is New York." He was born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and Yale University´s law school.

"A few years ago I would have said Washington was far behind New York in cultural offerings," Mrs. Wurtzel says. "But, in the past few years, I think there has been an extraordinary surge in activity at a very high level. We are no longer the distant outpost of New York but a vital part."

Her husband agrees. "Washington has changed dramatically," he says. "When I compare the art scene today with the early ´60s, and even when I came back to Washington in 1986 from Richmond, it is even more dynamic."

Mrs. Wurtzel says she wishes the high-tech world would become even more involved in cultural affairs. "But D.C. is no longer a one-industry town. A lot of people have the desire to share in the cultural experience of the city and find it an antidote to government and the law."

Mr. Wurtzel says, "What is inspiring for me as a board member is to see how these organizations want to be the best in their class."

The Phillips, he says, "sees itself as one of the finest small museums in the country, and Arena sees itself as one of the finest small theaters, where in Richmond they just aspire to be as good as they can."

The Wurtzels´ interests range far and wide. They traveled recently to Burma and Bhutan. Cultural and religious attractions in both countries were paramount for them. The two countries are Buddhist, with different strains of Buddhism, they say.

"We found ourselves quite surprised by Burma," Mrs. Wurtzel says. "The people are delightful. Americans should go there to lend exposure to a democratic world. Just isolating Burma is not a good way to proceed."

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