Published: September 13, 2011
Like people of a certain age who can sometimes do with a tune-up, the venerable National Academy Museum & School has been treated to a full-on facelift and the grand old house is set to sparkle. The 110-year-old Beaux Arts-style building on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, the institution’s home since 1942, has been closed for the past year while renovations were made. And it is not just the physical building that has been treated to a makeover; the mission statement of the institution itself has been reformulated, giving it a positive and focused direction.
Rooted in the past and solidly in the present, but always with an eye to the future, the National Academy of Design, as it was first known, has been a unique repository of American art and a school of instruction since its founding in 1825. It has mounted an annual exhibit every year since 1826, with the exception of 2010, when it was closed for the renovations. Redesign of its public spaces has brought the facility squarely into the Twenty-First Century; its new strategic plan and governance have given the institution new life.
For its September 16 reopening, the nearly 200-year-old academy celebrates the milestone with two exhibitions of works from the permanent collection, comprising more than 7,000 paintings drawings, prints and sculpture by major American artists and architects. Most of the collection was acquired through diploma presentations of its artists and architects, although there have been donations and bequests from other sources. Most notable of those was the 1865 bequest of 90 paintings of mid-Nineteenth Century American and European paintings from the estate of artist and collector James Augustus Suydam. The academy also holds works by nonmembers.
The strength of the academy’s collection is its bird’s-eye perspective of the trajectory of American art. Throughout its life the academy has been a contemporary entity drawing from the day at hand. Its collection comprises work from every year of its nearly two centuries that reflect the influences of major as well as lesser-known movements in American art.
“An American Collection” is the initial rotation of a salon-style installation of about 110 works from the collection. It is focused on the artists and architects whose works charted the course of American art from 1820 through the 1970s, beginning with that of academy founders Samuel F.B. Morse and Thomas Cole. Under the umbrella of “An American Collection” are six other showcase installations.
“The Artist Revealed: A Panorama of Great Artist Portraits” is drawn from the academy’s collection of more than 1,000 portraits gathered over its lifetime. Portraiture was, until 1998, a required part of a diploma presentation for election to the academy; portraits were usually of the artist himself or another artist. By 1846, an academy inventory listed 77 diploma portraits.
“Parabolas to Post Modern: Architecture from the Academy’s Collection” examines developments in American architecture since 1945 and comprises architectural drawings, renderings, models and photographs. Such landmarks as the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy International Airport by Eero Saarinen, Frank O. Gehry’s 1986 Winton guest house overlooking Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., are among the architectural renderings by academicians.
“National Academicians: Then and Now” offers a look at recent work by contemporary artists Elizabeth Catlett, Malcolm Morley, Janet Fish and Joan Snyder, and that of architect Thom Mayne’s 1988 “Woman with Two Babies.” These works will be compared with their diploma presentations to illustrate the course of these artists’ work and the larger issue of academicians in the development of American art and architecture.
“Contemporary Selections: Aligning Abstraction” explores the paintings and sculpture of recent diploma presentations by five contemporary academicians: the English-born Garth Evans, Harriet Korman, Don Voisine, Stephen Westfall and Melissa Meyer.
“Will Barnet at 100” is the academy’s salute to academician Barnet on the occasion of his centennial. (He turned 100 years old this past May.) Forty-three of his paintings from a variety of public and private collections will be on view; Barnet will also be the focus of “Will Barnet in Conversation” on October 12 and the subject of a symposium on November 5.
The Barnet exhibition delineates the evolution of his styles over the course of his more than eight decades as an artist, printmaker and revered instructor. Barnet became the official printer at the Art Students League in 1935 and taught there from 1942 to 1979.
An academician since 1982, Barnet’s own admission portrait is included in the exhibit. Barnet’s work began in the Social Realism of the 1930s era and moved a decade later to careful abstraction, often geometric, to the figural at the beginning of the 1960s and then a recent turning to abstraction. The paintings on view have been chosen to delineate those transitions, throughout which his themes were constant: family relationships.
The National Academy is far older than its current home. Established in 1825 as the National Academy of Design and modeled on the 1768 Royal Academy of Arts in London, the academy has as its mission the promotion of the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition. It is accordingly a tripartite institution: an organization of American artists, run by the artists; a museum; and a professional school of fine arts. From the start, part of the academy’s mission was the annual exhibition of contemporary American art. At the time of its founding, there were few art galleries and no art schools in New York; the Metropolitan Museum only opened in 1872 and the Art Student’s League in 1875.
Aside from Cole and Morse, who was elected the first president, the academy’s founders include notable artists such as Rembrandt Peale, Ithiel Towne and Asher B. Durand. Over the course of its nearly two centuries, almost 2,000 leading American artists have been elected to the academy. Membership is open to practitioners of painting, sculpture, the graphic arts or architecture; members are elected by their peers.
For its first 120 years or so, the National Academy was relatively nomadic. It began at the Old Alms House in City Hall Park, where young artists learned from established professional artists. Part of the program centered on practical training, i.e., drawing from plaster casts of sculpture, and part was given over to lectures on anatomy, perspective, ancient history, architecture and mythology. Exhibitions were conducted at 287 Broadway and nearby in space above the Arcade Baths on Chambers Street.
Life classes were introduced in 1837 †for advanced male students. Life drawing for women was not offered until 1857, although antique classes for women began to be offered in 1831.
The academy’s next move was to Clinton Hall in Astor Place, where classes and annual exhibitions were conducted until 1840. Between 1841 and 1865, the academy was located at two other locations. The academy, its offices, the school and exhibit space moved into its own Venetian Gothic Revival building at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 23rd Street in 1865. The building was sold in 1899 and the academy was again on the move, to 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, with exhibitions at the American Fine Arts Society on West 57th Street. Plans were made for the construction of a building at that time, but the project never materialized.
In the meantime, academy member Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband, Archer Milton Huntington, donated their six-story house at 1083 Fifth Avenue and their adjacent property on 89th Street. The couple took up residence at their country home in Redding, Conn., while Anna maintained a studio and a small apartment in the academy’s building until just before her death at 97.
The academy has been at home on Fifth Avenue since 1942, when it moved into the renovated Huntington house whose interiors were designed by Ogden Codman; the recent renovations have brought the building into the Twenty-First Century while maintaining its essence of domestic elegance.
The lobby, formerly housing a gift shop, has been modernized with state-of-the-art media delineating the history, scope and mission of the institution. The ceiling was bared and is now engraved with the names of every member since the beginning. A new gallery between the lobby and the rotunda, with its sweeping spiraling staircase, is home to two large Asher Durand paintings.
While the institution’s footprint remains unchanged, gallery walls have been resurfaced to allow a more harmonious installation of modern art. Windows long boarded up have been reopened to admit natural light and views of Central Park, and new lighting has been installed. Architectural detail has been retained in keeping with the historic nature of the building. Studio and student exhibition space have been refitted to allow greater flexibility in the use of space.
The National Academy has also been given new governance and new financial and strategic plans to keep it vital. A decision to sell two Hudson River paintings in 2008 to cover operating expenses earned the academy censure by the American Association of Museum Directors, a move that called for other museums not to make loans to the academy and not to collaborate on exhibitions with it.
As academy director Carmine Branagan observes, however, “There is nothing like a good crisis to generate the will and intention to move forward.” That was perhaps her mantra when faced with the challenge of revitalizing this unique institution. She saw the need to guarantee its survival by transforming it from a club of artists to an outward-facing public education organization.
All exhibits remain on view through December. The National Academy Museum & School is at 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm. For information, www.nationalacademy.org or 212-369-4880.
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