As far as vices go, Rep. John Mica’s might seem a little tame.
“I don’t gamble, I don’t chase women, I don’t drink — well, every once in a while — but no vices,” he said. “My vice is probably art. I just enjoy it. Some people go to sports events. I like to go to museums.”
But his self-described vice has taken him far beyond simply visiting museums, and the Florida Republican’s space in the Rayburn House Office Building stands as a testament to his love of art.
An original work by American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder hangs across from 16th-century drawings done by Italian old masters such as Guido Reni, Luca Cambiasi and Annibale Carracci. Famous prints of Plains Indians by George Catlin line a wall next to shelves stuffed with antique globes, swords and delicate blue and white china.
And that’s just at work. At home, Mica keeps pieces by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Marc Chagall.
Mica credits his love of art to his uncle, Joe Mica, a commercial artist who took him to museums and exhibitions when he was young. It wasn’t until college that Mica — then a “poor but poverty-stricken student” — bought his first piece of art. With just $10 down and several monthly payments, he could call a Georges Rouault woodblock print his own.
For a colorblind art lover like himself, Mica noted that the starkly outlined print was an ideal starter piece for his collection. Since then, his interest has evolved away from the contemporary and avant-garde, although he still enjoys some of the more experimental pieces that he collected early on.
“Your tastes change,” he said. “I first got into more contemporary artists and started a collection, and then I moved away from that and these things ended up in a hallway of my house in Winter Park. Even when I was home, I rarely got to see them, so I brought some of this art up here to have in the office.”
In his office, a few works from his early phase — such as his original Calder — hang beside pieces reflecting his current passions, which include the Italian old master drawings and Lafayette Staffordshire, blue and white china commemorating the general’s visit to the United States in 1824-25.
To build his collection, Mica searches for items online and at auctions or turns to a few art dealers he has in Italy. He also goes to Italy almost every year as a way to indulge in his “love affair” with the country and its art.
That love affair began when Mica, who had to take time off from attending the University of Florida after his father got sick, earned enough money to travel to Europe.
“I tramped through the museums from one end to the other,” Mica said of the trip he took when he was 21. “I actually ran out of money in Europe and worked in a Volkswagen factory. I was there for about a year, so I had a lot of time to look at the European art.”
Since then, Mica has built a collection that may not rival the Rockefellers — “they have an art collection that just blows your socks off,” he said — but it’s one he treasures.
“My collection is just a little piker’s compared to theirs,” he said. “But I enjoy it.”
Life in the House can sometimes get in the way of his hobby. The week before the recent recess, Mica said he’d had his eye on a piece at a London auction. But with votes, meetings and hearings, art had to come second.
“I just got so damn busy that I missed it,” he said. “But they’ll be more opportunities. Some of this stuff is a little bit pricey, so you can only do so much.”
Part of what he aims to do, though, goes beyond building his own personal collection. As House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, Mica has one epic goal — he wants to convert the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters into a space for the National Gallery of Art.
“You know, legislation comes and goes, but the Congress is the custodian of great treasures of the people and we should make these treasures available for the public,” Mica said.
And Mica’s pledged to stay in Congress until the building transfer happens.
“A few weeks back, I was in the National Gallery on a Sunday and it was jam-packed,” Mica said. “The neat thing is, I saw people from all walks of life and they were just enjoying looking at the art. It’s their art collection, and I think it’s good to make sure the owners are treated properly and have access to it.”
As for his own art collection, Mica’s a bit more modest about its future.
“Probably what will happen, when I die, all this crap will get submitted to an auction,” Mica said, laughing. “This isn’t really museum quality, but it’s nice. I enjoy it. I collect some books, too — it’s the junky potpourri. I keep the good stuff at home.”
Some of the good stuff, however — such as the prints, the china and some of the Italian old masters’ drawings — made it to his D.C. office.
“I guess everybody has their hobbies, and I’ve got mine,” Mica said. “And since you spend two-thirds of your time up here, it’s nice to bring a little bit of the art from home.”
One piece that won’t make it from his home to the Capitol, however, is what Mica calls his most controversial work — a nude painting of his aunt made by his artist uncle.
“My wife refused to have it hung in our dining room,” he said. “I wanted to hang the nude in there, and you can tell who won — the painting ended up in the hallway and didn’t make it to the dining room. Sometimes my wife and I have little disagreements about the display of the art, and I lost on that one. But that’s the most controversial piece of art in my family. I have to chuckle about that one. He was pretty avant-garde.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.