The comeback: The National Academy reopens with six new exhibitions

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.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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