Yes, the National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park South) is a private club dedicated to promoting interest in the arts. But it is also a gallery, open to the public, that hosts temporary exhibits and displays a private collection, as well as a school and a venue for a wide range of events. All that, and it is located in a brownstone overlooking the private Gramercy Park that has been designated both a city landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
The National Arts Club. Image: Jim.henderson/Wikimedia
Charles De Kay, an author who was also the literary and art critic for the “New York Times,” founded the club with a coterie of artists and patrons in 1898. It almost immediately enlisted more than 1,200 members, among them painter/sculptor Frederic Remington, known for his depictions of the American West; Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase; and industrialist and art patron Henry Frick. By 1906 the club had outgrown its original headquarters, on West 34th Street, so it bought the former home of Samuel Tilden, the 25th governor of New York and the first presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. Propitiously, when Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central Park, had refurbished the home for Tilden in the 1880s, he had added to its facade stone depictions of Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and other titans of the arts.
Unusually for a 19th-century private club, it accepted women members from the start. Nor were members restricted to the visual arts. Writers Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Frank McCourt were members, as were composer Victor Herbert, architect Stanford White, and presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Dwight Eisenhower. Current members include director Martin Scorsese (who filmed parts of “The Age of Innocence” in the clubhouse), actor/director Robert Redford, and novelist Alice Hoffman.
A stained-glass rendering of the club’s logo.
Image: Suzie Spaulding/Wikimedia
But the National Arts Club remains best known as a haven for visual artists and art aficionados. During the first half of the 20th century, notable painters, illustrators, and sculptors could gain life membership in exchange for donating one of their works. It is these pieces, by such artists as portraitist Cecilia Beaux, urban realist painter George Bellows, Robert Henri of the Ashcan School of realism, and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, that make up much of the club’s permanent collection. Since the end of the life-membership program in 1950, works by contemporary artists including Will Barnet, Chen Chi, and Larry Rivers, as well as a donation of 19th-century Chinese decorative art, have been added to the collection, which now encompasses more than 1,000 works.
As well as displaying much of its permanent collection, the National Arts Club hosts temporary exhibitions, which like the collection are open to the public. Through November 25, “The Power of the South Wind—Across Borders,” paintings by Mexican artist José Luis Bustamante, will be on display. Photographer Lissa Rivera’s “Beautiful Boy,” an exploration of visual interpretations of feminine beauty, is also featured throughout most of November, and “A Tribute to Irving Petlin,” known for his use of pastels, will be on display into January.
Inside the National Arts Club. Image: Mwatt510/Wikimedia
In addition, the club hosts a wide range of talks and performances. In November alone its calendar includes a solo performance by guitar David Leisner of works by Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel, among others; a conversation with John Freeman Gill, author of the novel “The Gargoyle Hunters”; a celebration of Joan Rivers hosted by journalists Bill Boggs and Leslie Bennetts; and a talk about the architecture of the Harlem Renaissance.
For those interested in making their own art, the club holds classes three nights a week, for artists of all levels. Sketch Class, on Monday evenings, features a live model, as does Drawing the Clothes Figure on Wednesday nights. Friday nights’ Instructed Drawing Sessions provide individualized instruction. While members in the National Arts Club certainly has its benefits—among them, access to the gated Gramercy Park—it maintains its mission, and remains a jewel of the neighborhood, by making so many of its offerings available to all.