Little Bits of History

The Arts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 23, 2014
American Academy of Arts & Letters facade

American Academy of Arts & Letters facade

April 23, 1904: American Academy of Arts & Letters forms. Originally called the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the group was founded as an offshoot of the American Social Science Association. The institute met for the first time in February of 1899 in New York City. Membership was capped at 150 and of those, 30 were eligible for the additional honor of being included in the Academy when it was founded on this day. In 1907, membership levels changed to 250 and 50 for the two groups. In 1913, President Taft incorporated the National Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1916, the Academy was also incorporated.

The Académie française served as the model for the American Academy. Members of the Institute selected seven of their members to become the first Academicians. William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarance Stedman, John La Farge, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), John Hay, and Edward MacDowell were the selected men who then selected eight others. Those men then selected another five and this continued until the cap of thirty members was met. Both groups did not have a permanent meeting place until 1923 when they moved to their current headquarters located on West 155th Street. The Academy’s meeting room contained fifty hand-carved Italian walnut chairs designed by McKim, Mead & White and donated by Elizabeth Cochran Bowen.

This two tiered structure remained intact for 72 years with 200 members in the lower section and fifty in the elite section. In 1976 members of the two combined into one group and called themselves the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. With this move, the membership could hold 250 living US citizens and up to 75 foreign composers, artists, and writers as honorary members. While they were served by one board of directors, there was still a tier establishment. This was completely done away with in 1993 and they became the American Academy of Arts and Letters at that time.

Members are chosen for life and have included some impressive names. They are organized into committees and award prizes to up and coming artists annually. Some of the original and early members may not be well known today, but in their time they were the movers and shakers of the artistic world. All is not sunshine and goodness, even among the best of the best. William James declined membership because his brother, Henry, was selected first. Robert Underwood Johnson was an early member and campaigned against modernism and kept out such illustrious writers as HL Mencken, F Scott Fitzgerald, and TS Eliot. Although not kept out by decree, women were not included early on. In 1908, Julia Ward Howe was elected in at the age of 88. In 1926, with the admittance of four women, the ban against the gentle sex was dropped.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. – Albert Einstein

O, had I but followed the arts! – William Shakespeare

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. – Henry David Thoreau

Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed. – H. L. Mencken

Also on this day: The Bard of Avon – In 1616, William Shakespeare dies.
Boston Latin School – In 1635, the first public school in America (still open) was founded.
Lights, Camera, Action – In 1867, a patent for a zoetrope was granted.
Mississippi Burning – In 1940, the Rhythm Night Club burned.

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