|Should you go?|
|Time spent||37 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||This 2015 tapestry by Michael Smith, titled “Excuse Me I am looking for the Fountain of Youth!” delighted me. Who makes tapestries? But this one was full of wonderful narrative details including skinny dipping bunnies, errant knights, and a TSA metal detector.|
A Hall of Fame for Great Artists
Imagine the 250 greatest living creators of art and literature had a club, and you could only join it if one of them nominated you. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, and you and the other 249 greatest creators would get together and, I don’t even know what. Hob-nob, soiree, cotillion, give prizes to one another and possibly to other artists who aren’t quite 250-worthy, but hey, you keep trying there.
That’s the American Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898. Except that in 2020 it graciously upped its ranks (or, from another point of view, lowered its standards) to 300.
It somewhat reminds me of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, except the Academy’s 250 (or 300) don’t have bronze busts. They do, however, have a neat clubhouse up in Harlem, part of the Audubon Terrace complex that also houses the Hispanic Society.
A Space on Audubon Terrace
Mere mortals mostly don’t get to visit the Academy. However, periodically, the place does open up for special exhibitions. I have always managed to miss them, right up until this year, when I finally made a visit.
The Academy’s gallery spaces are lovely, in a slightly-gone-to-seed way. They comprise two mirror-image Beaux-Arts pavilions facing one another across the brick plaza of the Terrace.
Their interiors range from darkened rooms for video installations to spaces bright with skylights or windows (overlooking the atmospheric Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleum, no less).
I tend to think contemporary art works best in older spaces. The contrast of old and new works better for me than, say, an austere, whitewashed concrete box. So the slightly shabby pavilions held great appeal. Moreover, I appreciated how thoughtfully the curators used the variety of spaces at their disposal.
I saw the Academy’s 2022 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, a sort of mini-Whitney-biennial of contemporary artists that the Academy’s members like. Future member recruitment?
The description said that although there was no intentional theme, nonetheless, “[i]n many cases, the finished works destabilize, even disregard, old disciplinary questions rooted in hierarchy—is it a painting or a sculpture; art or craft? Instead, they opt for plenitude, for and, and, and. ” Indeed, the show included nearly three dozen artists working in eclectic materials: ceramics and glass, sculpture and video, the aforementioned tapestry, and even upholstery (see Loveseat).
These kinds of exhibits are always hit-or-miss, and so I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the show was a hit for me. It helped that most pieces in this show were lighthearted, clever, and often quite beautiful. For example, I loved Judy Fox’s slightly creepy, biomorphic, technicolor terra cotta pieces that looked like something out of a Jeff VanderMeer book.
Should You Visit the American Academy of Arts and Letters?
The Academy’s raison d’être is unfashionable these days. Elitism and exclusivity aren’t really a good look. However, I think elitism, after a fashion, is due for a comeback, and so I am very happy that the Academy still exists, and seems to be going strong.
The entrance to one of the two Academy pavilions features a pair of handsome, old-school bronze doors, with naked cherubim and the personifications of Inspiration (girl) and Drama (guy), along with the sentiment, “By the gates of art we enter the temple of happiness.” However, the pediment of the same building bears a different perspective: “All passes, art alone untiring stays to us.”
While art isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) about making people happy, positioning museums as temples of untiring happiness is no bad thing, especially in an era when happiness feels in especially short supply.
The Academy boasts great old spaces for viewing new art, and Audubon Terrace is an unexpected architectural gem. I’d definitely recommend visiting the next time the Academy opens its doors.
|Address||633 West 155th Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: Free|
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