The National Academy of Design Makes a Triumphant Comeback

Left: Self Portrait, 1902, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins. Oil on canvas. (National Academy of Design, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images)

Right: Self Portrait, 1894, Cecilia Beaux. Oil on canvas. National Academy of Design, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

After years in dire straits, America’s oldest artist-advocacy organization has shored up its finances and returned to its roots.

After years in the shadows, broke, shunned, and mortified, the National Academy of Design is in the spotlight. Some resurrections are unwelcomed — politicians, unfunny comics, and old Olympians, usually — but the NAD’s is good news.

The NAD is America’s oldest artist-advocacy organization. It dates from 1825, when it was established by Thomas Cole, Samuel F. B. Morse, and other now-venerated artists. Its goal — “to promote the fine arts in America through exhibition and education” — was radical at a time when art in America was either primitive or viewed as a craft rather than a calling. It wasn’t that Americans naturally had bad taste. It was that they had no taste, because they had so few opportunities for aesthetic experience.

By 2015, 190 years after its founding, the NAD had no money, no obvious donor base, and a feuding membership. (It’s run by artists, so disputation, illogic, and dreams both big and eccentric are par for the course.) It had gone into a quiet phase after a debacle surrounding its sale of millions of dollars of art from its great collection to pay its bills, which had nevertheless continued to pile up. Then, in 2016, it closed the doors of its museum. A barebones staff safely stored the collection and handled back-of-house matters while the board wrestled with the existential issues at hand. The NAD was scorned and derided, it seemed, into oblivion.

Until now.

The long and short of the story is that the NAD has been fixed. Believe it or not, the artists did the fixing themselves. They looked at the NAD’s mission, history, finances, and core constituency and drew from the principles necessary to guide it both now and for decades to come. They were ruthlessly practical, and the results speak volumes.

During the last couple of years, the NAD has done four smart things.

First, it recalibrated its core mission. It has always been an artist-run organization. Its exclusive, invite-only membership comprises many of the best artists in the country, and going forward it has decided to focus its resources and energy on serving them. This means promoting their achievements, helping them through grants, and producing a snappy online journal that’s fresh and focused. It also meant scrapping the traditional expectation that members should also be donors.

Second, the NAD decided to divest itself of valuable real estate. It was cursed and blessed with ownership of three buildings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, among them its flagship public building at 1083 Fifth Avenue. It has sold two of those buildings and will eventually sell the third. This has given it money in the bank. There’s now a healthy, legally restricted endowment it can’t blow.

Third, the NAD cut ties with its art school, which is a good and admirable institution in its own right but was a fundraising drag in a saturated market. The school is now on its own and doing fine.

Fourth, and best of all, the NAD is now living within its means. In politics, causes usually evolve into movements, then businesses, and finally rackets. In the arts world, ambitions might start as grand but often turn grandiose, then grotesque, and finally draining and debilitating. The NAD will eventually find a new home that includes a nice, small exhibition space to show selections from its superb permanent collection of art on a rotating basis, in a happy resolution to an internal debate that had long raged among members.

Since the 1820s, academicians have given their work to the NAD, so it owns important things. Over the last 15 years, the NAD has produced some fantastic shows of this work, shows that produced important art-history scholarship. These shows, it seems, became a controversy among the academicians as the institution’s situation got more and more dire. Many didn’t see the point of doing shows on the work of dead members. To them, it was an expensive distraction that refocused the NAD away from living artists and toward fundraising, marketing, outreach to schools, loans for shows, and all the other things that concern museum people but not artists.

The rotating-exhibition scheme has eliminated that problem, and, together with all the NAD’s other changes, gone a long way toward resolving the existential question of how museum-like the institution should be. A few years ago, back when that question was still open, it changed its name to the National Academy Museum. But it’s not really a museum. It’s an artist-run organization with a collection. As one telling new step, it’s changed its name back to what it was for a hundred years: the National Academy of Design.

This isn’t a semantical difference but one of substance. It means different standards. When it sold art to pay operating expenses, the NAD was punished by the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. I was a member of both and supported the sanctions. My museum wouldn’t lend work to NAD shows. In retrospect, I think the penalties did the NAD a disservice. It’s not a museum, and shouldn’t be treated like one by organizations like the AAM and AAMD, as well-meaning as they are. In America, many types of organizations own great art. This diversity is one of the American art world’s great strengths. One size doesn’t fit all. Some arts organizations owning great works will need to sell them if the choice is plainly between living to fight another day and closing for good. They should be able to do this without incurring the wrath of well-heeled do-gooders like the AAM and AAMD.

Last fall, I went to three NAD events, among them the induction of the 2018 class of academicians. These were well-done, high-spirited, and appropriately bohemian affairs, and one thing was clear at all of them: There is, among artists, an enormous amount of love and respect for the NAD. It has fixed its problems. It’s standing tall. I say “Welcome back,” and hope my colleagues in the American art world will do the same.


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