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Saturday, November 3, 2012

The National Arts Club

The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park, New York
We who are not a part of it, frequently speak disparagingly of what we call the "art establishment." We have in our minds ultra liberal pinheads standing around a pile of artfully arranged bricks, or seemingly unarranged brushstrokes defiling an otherwise perfectly good hood of a 1948 Chrysler, while daintily sipping wine and noshing on cheese speared with a toothpick. We picture this upscale scene somewhere behind the art-deco doors of an ever-so-chic SOHO art gallery where prices for a painting of...well....okay, the card on the wall beside it says, "Disenfranchisement", where prices for such cutting-edge work begin at $10,000 (without frames) and can go as high as ten times that. This is an inaccurate stereotype. The real heart of the New York, liberal, establishment, art world is many blocks away, beyond the guarded gates of Gramercy Park, ensconced behind the locked doors of a nineteenth century brownstone mansion once belonging to a former governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilton.

The National Arts Club, a gallery installation dating from about 1914.
This ivory tower bastion of art conservancy is called the National Arts Club, and while it's probably not made of ivory, its beaux-art style home is joined to a twelve-story tower just behind it, housing resident studios for such currently well-known artists as Will Barnet, Chen Chi, Diana Kan, and Everett Raymond Kinstler. Founded in 1898 by a gentleman named Charles de Kay, an art and literary critic for the New York Times, the organization inspired a spirit of cultural nationalism that in its day made it the most innovative arts group in the country. De Kay was able to organize museum officials, dealers, writers, editors, and businessmen to work with artists such as Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan; along with wealthy patrons such as Benjamin Altman, Samuel P. Avery, and Henry Clay Frick, to promote the exhibition and sales of work by American Artists.

A National Arts Club recent exhibit, the work of Swedish-born Peter Hammar.
Early exhibits of the National Arts Club included sculpture by Rodin, the first exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-seccession, and the annual exhibits of the Women's Art Club. Not just limited to painting and sculpture, the organization also promotes the applied arts (crafts), industrial arts, as well as civic art and architecture. Its membership has always been open to both men and women and over the years, through its life-membership program, it has acquired a collection of American Art spanning a broad range of content and styles. Today, despite it's sheltered venue among the stuffy Victorian monuments to "cultured" living, it is both a repository of 20th century art, and a vibrant creative force to be reckoned with in the New York art world.
All too often, the National Arts Club exhibits are little more than backdrops for  those wishing to see and be seen with celebrities, here: Nancy Rhodes, Lucie Arnaz, Sheldon Harnick, Marvin Hamlisch, Karen Ziemba, and Daniel De Siena.

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