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“Exciting Future”? Monitoring the Uncertain Condition of the Embattled National Academy

Without no permanent director and no home in which to display highlights from its 7,700-object collection of American art, the shuttered National Academy of Design (NAD), New York, is extricating some 100 key works from long-term storage to send them on a three-year, eight-venue national tour, beginning next month, under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts.

“Get updates about our exciting new future,” proclaims the homepage of the long-dormant NAD, which closed its doors to the public on June 1, 2016, at the age of 190, with the stated intention of reopening in a “new home.”

Two and a half years later, the nature of that “exciting future” has not yet been revealed and a “new home” has not yet materialized. Meanwhile, its Fifth Avenue flagship building (a stone’s throw from the Guggenheim Museum) and one of the NAD’s two adjoining townhouses have been sold for $25 million each, according to city records in June and December 2018, as reported by CurbedNY. A third adjoining NAD building is still on the market (asking price: $27 million).

SOLD for $25 million: National Academy’s former Fifth Avenue flagship building, as seen in early November
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The proceeds from the property sales are being applied to a “permanent endowment, …which ensures the perpetuity of the institution,” as an Academy spokesperson informed me in response to my recent queries.

As CultureGrrl readers may remember (from a story that I broke in 2008), the sales of two important paintings by Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford under the directorship of Carmine Branagan were intended to secure the NAD’s future. Instead, the Academy remained on shaky ground and incurred the Association of Art Museum Directors’ censure and ostracism.

Branagan had told me at the time: “We had a choice of selling or becoming part of the dustbin of history.” That may yet happen, unless an experienced, resourceful administrator comes to the NAD’s rescue and rights the foundering ship.

When I walked by on Nov. 2, the Fifth Avenue building (as seen above) still sported the red “National Academy Museum” banners, even though it had changed hands five months before. In its window (on the right, in the above photo) was this construction permit, which detailed some of the extensive renovations being performed:

Removal of interior non load-bearing partitions; interior wall, ceiling, floor finishes, plumbing fixtures, associated millwork and removal of non structural floor slab in cellar

A sense of what has been lost is conveyed in my 2011 CultureGrrl Video, in which architect Jane Stageberg walked me through the then just completed, meticulous renovation of the Academy’s elegant public spaces. All that work and money…now down the drain: The refurbishment has been overridden by contractors who are repurposing the building as a single-family residence.

Here’s the sorry sight of what the entrance hall looked like when I gazed through its open doors two months ago:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The ceiling panels, on which the names of the academicians and years of their inductions are inscribed, were still largely intact. Here’s one detail (from a photo I took on an earlier, pre-construction visit):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In another photo from the pre-construction days, here’s the salon-style hang in what had been the National Academy Museum’s largest gallery for its permanent collection:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In September, Mary Fisher became the NAD’s interim executive director, replacing Maura Reilly, who had departed without any public announcement:

Mary Fisher, the NAD’s interim executive director
Photo from National Academy’s
staff directory

When I asked the NAD to explain when and why Reilly had left, its spokesperson would only say: “We must respectfully decline to comment at this current time.” Reilly’s LinkedIn profile now describes her as an “art consultant.” She recently published a book: Curatorial Activism.

Fisher, the interim head, was the Academy’s director of institutional advancement and, before that, administrative director of the Academy’s school. She apparently recognizes that she has a learning curve: An NAD spokesperson told me she is “concurrently pursuing an MBA that will be focused on her work at the Academy and setting the stage for the strategic plan.”

For now, the Academy’s staff is still working out of the 3 E. 89th St. building, which is still on the market (asking price: $27 million):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

From the outside, the school still appeared to be functioning when I walked by in November. But, signage notwithstanding, the school had actually been “on hiatus” since August 2017. “The shape and function of the next iteration will unroll with our overarching plan,” the NAD’s spokesperson enigmatically emailed me, adding this:

The staff is in an industrious period of creating a strong administrative base for the organization while continuing to build upon initiatives that further our mission. We are getting the right players in position, empowering and engaging internal committees, and starting the processes necessary for a long-term strategic plan with the National Academician membership.

Putting a good face on a situation that’s ambiguous at best, Brian Allen, former director of the New-York Historical Society and the Addison Gallery of American Art, noted approvingly in his recent National Review article that the NAD is going back to its roots as an institution focused on serving its artist-members. (Its museum operations began in 1979.) He also maintained that “the school is now on its own and doing fine.” (Not exactly.)

For America, the exhibition traveling under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts (AFA), will open Feb. 23 at the Dayton Art Institute. At this writing, the closest it will get to its home base will be the New Britain (CT) Museum of American Art. (Its eighth venue has not yet been determined.)

Jointly curated by Jeremiah William McCarthy, AFA’s associate curator, and Diana Thompson, the Academy’s director of collections and curatorial affairs, the show will feature portraits of selected member artists of the Academy (either a self-portrait or a portrait painted by a colleague), along with each artist’s “diploma work”—the work given to the NAD by a newly inducted “academician” (artist-member).

Here’s one of my favorites from the upcoming show:

Thomas Eakins, “Self-Portrait,” 1902
Image from the National Academy’s website for the exhibition

For a look at what once was, come join me, once again, for a backward look, via this mournful CultureGrrl Video, taken just before the National Academy’s galleries were closed to the public. If there were ever an object lesson on why deaccessions are no solution to an art institution’s serious underlying problems, this is it:

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