The comeback: The National Academy reopens with six new exhibitions


All six exhibitions are mounted against the back­drop of the National Academy's newly reno­vated interiors by architect Jane Stageberg and de­signer Abbott Miller. The lobby is now a sleek, well-equipped orientation center, its new ceiling engraved with the names of academicians dating back to 1826, with space for future additions.

On the second floor the once-crumbling walls of the exhibition galleries have either been resurfaced or replaced to provide a more flexible backdrop for art, with new, more versatile track lighting. To maintain the rooms' historic character, fireplaces, door surrounds, and crown moldings have been preserved and restored, as have the superb cast-brass doorknobs and fittings. Additional renovations have been carried out in the Academy School to create new and welcoming areas for student and faculty exhibitions as well as public and professional programs and conferences.

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A noteworthy history

In 1802 the word "museum" usually meant a col­lection of scientific curiosities rather than a re­pository of fine art. That year New York's mayor, Edward Livingston, became president of the newly formed New York Academy of the Fine Arts, an organization run by businessmen who considered artists too impractical to run it themselves. Deter­mined to provide appropriately classical models for artists and students to copy, Robert R. Livingston (Edward's brother) ordered a set of plaster casts of statuary in the Louvre. And to lend the new institu­tion additional cachet, he invited France's First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte to accept the first honorary membership. Napoleon (who did not become emperor until 1804) not only accepted, but also presented the academy with a reference library including books of drawings and a twenty-four-volume set of Piranesi's etchings. The plaster heroes and deities arrived the following year and were in­stalled in the Greenwich Street building known as the Pantheon, where the public was invited to feast its eyes. But public interest waned, and because few investors were willing to purchase shares in the en­terprise, the New York Academy foundered.

In 1817 Mayor DeWitt Clinton revived it as the American Academy, exhibiting the plasters in the Old Alms House behind City Hall, surrounded with Napoleon's Piranesi prints and paintings by Benjamin West and John Trumbull lent by private owners. His appointment of Trumbull as president proved less wise. Snobbish and arrogant, Trumbull reasoned that as there had been no plaster casts available to him when he began to study painting, young upstarts had no right to them now.

Trumbull's antipathy so angered the community of young artists that in 1825 a group of them led by the rising young painter Samuel F. B. Morse formed their own organization, the New York Drawing As­sociation, to provide a place for young artists to study. The following year its name was changed to the National Academy of Design. Most signifi­cantly, the new National Academy membership was composed entirely of artists. Morse was elected its first president, Henry Inman, vice president, and John Ludlow Morton, secretary.

Modeled on the Royal Academy in London, the National Academy aimed from its inception to estab­lish a high standard of artistic professionalism in the UnitedStates by holding annual exhibitions of new work. The National Academy School allowed students and younger professional artists to draw from casts under the supervision of established professionals. Regular lectures were given by eminent figures such as the poet William Cullen Bryant and the influential Gothic-revival architect Alexander Jackson Davis.

Meanwhile, the academy faced the challenge of finding a permanent home. After decades of moving around in the vicinity of lower Broadway, it raised sufficient funds to erect a permanent building at the corner of East Twenty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue opposite Madison Square. In 1899, how­ever, the increasingly valuable land was sold and the building razed to make way for the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower.

After that the National Academy School occupied a temporary home near the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine until 1939 when Archer M. Huntington, husband of the celebrated sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, N.A., bequeathed his Fifth Avenue town house and the adjoining properties to the academy, its home today.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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