from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2011 |
The National Academy reopens with six exhibitions designed to reclaim its pivotal role in American art and architecture.
Many who stroll along New York's Museum Mile surely break their stride at the handsome Beaux Arts facade at 1083 Fifth Avenue, just to the north of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. They slow down to read "National Academy Museum" on the narrow bronze sign over the doorway. But it is likely that relatively few of these observers understand the profound historic significance of the institution or guess at the richness of the collections housed behind the curved limestone bay of the former Archer M. Huntington mansion.
For almost a century after its establishment in 1825, the National Academy of Design, as it was called until 1997, was the hub of American art. "It is the American École des Beaux-arts," wrote the commentator in Moses King's massive Handbook of New York in 1892, "the American equivalent of the Royal Academy and of the [Paris] Salon...the spring and autumn exhibitions of the National Academy, in May and November, are the leading art events of the year."*
The initials "N.A." after an artist's name lent enormous cachet, and over the years, the academy's membership included the preeminent names in American painting, sculpture, and architecture, from its founding fathers, Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand, to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Glackens. With the advent of modernism in the twentieth century a shift in taste and aesthetics increasingly marginalized the National Academy, as well as its European counterparts. Critics dismissed it as conservative, even irrelevant, despite the membership of such contemporary luminaries as Chuck Close, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Gehry, and Cesar Pelli. By the second half of the last century the National Academy found itself in the unenviable position of being venerable but not venerated.
In 2008, after running at a rising deficit and borrowing from its endowment, the academy made a desperate decision to raise operating monies by selling two Hudson River school paintings from its permanent collection. Those funds kept the doors from closing, but the sale brought sanctions from the Association of Art Museum Directors-equivalent to professional excommunication.
In the ensuing three years, the academy board worked hard to redraft the constitution, reorganize finances, and put the institution on a more stable and prudent footing. The realist painter, trompe-l'oeil muralist, and printmaker Richard Haas served as the academy president during that period, playing a crucial role in helping to define its new direction. "My stewardship offered me greater insight into how the museum and art worlds function, and the National Academy's relationship to that world," he says. "But our goal of preserving our institution while reinvigorating it could not have been accomplished if my artist colleagues had not pulled together so effectively."
Last October, in recognition of this effort, the Association of Art Museum Directors lifted its sanctions. And this month, after being closed for fourteen months to undergo a $3.5 million renovation (funded by recent bequests and donations), the National Academy reopens its doors with six celebratory exhibitions that will run through December 31. Culled from its extensive permanent collection of more than seven thousand works of art and architecture, the exhibitions feature nearly two centuries of work by National Academicians.
One of the academy's chief goals is to emphasize the importance of its current membership, which celebrated the induction earlier this year of thirty-two new academicians, the largest number in a decade. Moreover, at its last annual meeting the membership voted to open membership to installation artists and photographers as well as to artists in other emerging areas.
Of the six new exhibitions, the largest is the salon-style An American Collection, comprised of some one hundred paintings by members who essentially forged the path taken by American art from 1820 through the 1970s. The exhibition emphasizes the place the academy has occupied in the American art world. A complementary exhibition, The Artist Revealed: A Panorama of Great Artist Portraits draws on the academy's collection of more than one thousand portraits to celebrate the central position of portraiture in American painting and sculpture. Marshall Price, one of the academy's two curators, observes that, "Because most of our collection consists of gifts from the academicians themselves, we are uniquely able to present an ‘artist's eye view' of the history of American art and architecture."
* Moses King, King's Handbook of New York City (Boston, 1892; reprinted Barnes and Noble, New York, 2001), pp. 278-279.