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Home | Articles | Travel: Discovering New York City Arts Clubs

by Dana Micucci

William Merritt Chase’s palette, stained glass created by John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany, and pages from a rare Gutenburg Bible, are a sampling of intriguing objects housed in some of New York City’s private arts clubs. Several of these historic enclaves have long promoted community interest in the arts by opening to the public and offering exhibitions.

Exterior of The National Arts Club at 15 20th Street, in New York City's Gramercy Park

A stroll through New York’s Gramercy Park, a neighborhood steeped in cultural history that has over the past century claimed many resident artists, would not be complete without a visit to the National Arts Club on 20th Street facing the Park square. Housed in a Victorian Gothic double brownstone that once belonged to former New York governor and presidential candidate Samuel Tilden, the National Arts Club was founded in 1898 by The New York Times art and literary critic Charles de Kay as a gathering place for artists, patrons, and audiences in all the arts. Early members included American artists Robert Henri, Frederic Remington, and William Merritt Chase; collectors Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan; writer Mark Twain; and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who held his first Photo-Secessionist exhibition here in 1902.

Reception room at the National Arts Club.

Today, the 2000-member club continues its mission to “educate the American people in the fine arts” with a full-time schedule of exhibitions of works by artist members, as well as evening literary readings and book signings, performances, and lectures.

The National Arts Club, whose richly-decorated Aesthetic interior is a work of art unto itself, also boasts a small, superb collection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American paintings by Henri, Chase, George Bellows, Ernest Blumenschein, among others, as well as modern works by Frank Stella, Louise Bourgeois, and Andy Warhol, which can be viewed by appointment. “The National Arts Club is well worth exploring,” says Jeffrey Bergen, president and director of ACA Galleries, one of New York’s oldest galleries specializing in American and contemporary art.

Enlivening the club’s black-walnut paneled rooms are elaborate wood-carved fireplaces, a La Farge stained-glass window, a magnificent stained-glass dome designed by Donald MacDonald of Boston, Tiffany lamps, Persian carpets, and bronze sculptures by Paul Manship. Architect Philip Johnson once called the mansion, which is now designated a National Historic Landmark, “among the most beautiful in New York.”

Stained glass dome by Donald MacDonald in the National Arts Club.

“The sheer beauty of the club combined with an exciting cultural atmosphere makes for a rich way of life,” says painter Will Barnet, a longtime member who counts the La Farge window and Henri’s Portrait of Eugenie Stein among his favorite artworks at the club. “This is a very accessible, welcoming place. Big cities need organizations that bring people together with similar interests.”

Galleries are open to the public Monday through Friday from 10:00a.m. to 5:00p.m. (Call in advance to confirm hours and events, 212.475.3424.) Exhibitions of photography and works by The New York Etchers Society are scheduled for this January.

Just across town at 47 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village resides one of the country’s oldest arts organizations. The Salmagundi Club originated as the New York Sketch Club in 1871, and was later renamed after Washington Irving’s Salmagundi Papers, a humorous sketch of early 1800s New York society. Since its beginnings, when a group of young artists and non-artists gathered on Saturday evenings in the studio of sculptor J. Scott Hartley to sketch and critique each other’s work, the Salmagundi Club has been a favorite urban gathering place for visual artists and art patrons. Its members have included Childe Hassam, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Ogden Pleissner, Thomas Moran, Paul Cadmus, and N. C. Wyeth, as well as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and architect Stanford White. Noted portraitists Everett Raymond Kinstler and Daniel E. Greene, and Titanic survivor Melvina Dean, are among its current members.

A John La Farge stained glass window in the National Arts Club.

Like the National Arts Club, the Salmagundi Club organizes juried exhibitions of works by artist members that are open to the public. The club’s popular annual paintings, photographs, and sculpture show runs from January 2 to February 14. Exhibitions of works by members of the New York Society of Portrait Artists and the American Watercolor Society will be on view this spring. The club also hosts fine-art lectures, concerts, and sketching classes on Monday and Thursday evenings, Saturday morning painting classes, and spring and fall fundraising art auctions open to members and the public. Visiting hours are from 1:00p.m. to 5:00p.m., seven days a week. Call ahead for information, 212.255.7740.

Exterior of the Salmagundi Club.

A highlight of the Salmagundi Club’s calendar are its museum-calibre exhibitions, such as the show two years ago of works by John Constable from a club member’s collection. Future plans include a national touring exhibition in 2004 of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and pre-World War I posters by Maxfield Parrish, John Sloan, and others from the club’s own stellar collection of past members’ works. Among the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American landscapes and portraits adorning the lobby and parlor are Carle Blenner’s Portrait of a Lady and Dwight Boyden’s End of a Rainy Day. Also on display in the lobby is a quirky collection of beer mugs painted by past members as part of a fundraising drive for the club’s library; a little known repository of old and rare art-related books, some of which date to the twelfth century. Mounted above the glass-paneled bookcases are artist’s palettes used by past members including one used by William Merritt Chase. (The library may be visited by appointment only.)

Stairwell at the Salmagundi Club.

Further uptown, lovers of graphic and book art will find inspiration at the Grolier Club, the country’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and graphic arts enthusiasts. Named for the great sixteenth-century French bibliophile Jean Grolier, the Grolier Club was founded in 1884 to foster “the literary study and promotion of the arts pertaining to the production of books.” The club mounts four exhibitions each year in the main gallery of its neo-Georgian townhouse at 47 East 60th Street, all open to the public free of charge. Recent exhibition themes have included American color-plate books, Victorian publishers’ bindings, the work of modern fine presses, and outstanding private libraries such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s library in Abiquiu.

The current exhibition of books, manuscripts, and works on paper from the collections of Grolier Club members runs through February 1, 2003. Additionally, the club holds book-related lectures and maintains a 100,000-volume library of books and manuscripts pertaining to printing, publishing, and collecting. The library also serves scholars with its vast collection of bookseller and book auction catalogues, and its fine printing examples ranging from medieval illuminated manuscripts and leaves from the fifteenth-century Gutenberg Bible to modern private-press books.

Whatever your artistic tastes, New York’s arts clubs are sure to enrich your cultural itinerary. You may even decide to become a member of one of these city sanctuaries.

Dana Micucci is a New York City-based journalist who specializes in the arts. She has written for Architectural Digest and The New York Times, among others. She is the author of Artists in Residence (The Little Bookroom), Best Bids: The Insider’s Guide to Buying at Auction (Viking Studio), and most recently, Collector’s Journal (The Little Bookroom).

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