Collection + Museum
The National Academy Museum opened its doors to the public in 1979. Prior to that, the institution was not regarded as a standard museum, but rather as one known for its three components: an honorary association of artists and architects, a school, and an Annual Exhibition.
The Annual and the schedule of hosted exhibitions held at the Academy prior to 1979 had been organized by its members, or had originated elsewhere. Over the years, the galleries of the Academy had often been rented or loaned to outside organizations or groups such as the Society of Decorative Arts and the American Watercolor Society; and a certain number of traveling exhibitions organized by other museums or art organizations have been hung in the Academy’s headquarters. However, once established as a “proper” museum in 1979, the Academy began presenting major exhibitions, many of which focused on historic European subjects. Since then, it has hosted and presented hundreds of exhibitions and has remained committed to the Annual Exhibitions, which have been held every year since 1826. At first, the Annuals were open to any American artist whose work was accepted by the jury of selection, comprised of Academicians. The Annual Exhibition was intended by the Academy’s founders to be a reflection of contemporary art in the United States—an American salon. For many years, it was considered as one of the most significant and influential of the serial exhibitions held in this country. It was the premier arena for American artists to show off their accomplishments, and the launching point of many careers. In 1843, the National Academy’s annual was referred to in the New York Daily Tribune as “a central point of attraction for the fair and fashionable of the city”. Annual exhibitions at other institutions were not uncommon; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Institute all held recurring exhibitions. The formation of the Whitney’s Annual / Biennial in the early 1930s was in reaction to the conservative Annuals of the National Academy of Design and intended to supplant the Academy’s Annual as the place to see contemporary American art. With the temporary closing of the museum in June 2016, the Annual and exhibitions were put on hold during the Academy’s transition to its new home.
The Academy houses one of the largest public collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art in the country. It comprises approximately 8,000 thousand works in almost every artistic style of the past two centuries, from the linear portraiture of the Federal period and the naturalistic landscapes of the Hudson River School (Kensett, Bash-Bish) to studies of light and atmosphere that inform Tonalism (Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marine) and American Impressionism; from the gritty realism of the Ashcan movement to the modernist movements of abstraction, and photo- and magic-realism (George Tooker, Voice II). Masterworks in these and other styles have come into the Academy’s collection mainly as gifts from newly elected National Academicians in compliance with membership requirements; thereby continually enriching the collection.
The Academy’s 19th-century paintings rank as the strongest and most comprehensive part of the collection. It was during this time that the institution was at the center of the American art world, and in accord with the Academy’s prestige, members felt personally impelled to donate representative examples of their work. The 19th century collection was strengthened by the 1865 bequest of James Augustus Suydam, who left the institution a large body of paintings, especially landscapes, which round out and deepen works given by members of the Hudson River School.
Additionally, the Academy has an important and unique collection of more than 1,000 artist portraits, spanning the early 19th century to the present day, which includes a group of sterling examples dating from the 19th century. The majority of these works were submitted by artist-members as a condition of their membership in the institution, forming one of the largest and most important holdings of painted portraits in the country. Works from this group are regularly sought after for loan.
Other areas of the collection that show particular strength are the figure paintings of the turn of the 19th century, and the sculpture collection of the first decades of the 20th century. The Academy is also the custodian of an extensive archive of work by important American artists including more than 100 paintings, watercolors and drawings by William Trost Richards, regarded today as one of our finest landscape and marine painters of the 19th century, as well as 75 paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and oil sketches by Kenyon Cox who was among the best-known cultural figures in the United States during the early part of the 20th century, thanks to his reputation as a mural painter and especially as a critic.
While the aforementioned aspects of the collection are perhaps the strongest, there have been considerable efforts made in the last decade or so to obtain works from highly acclaimed, high profile contemporary artists and architects who have recently been elected into the Academy’s membership. This has led to an increasingly expanding contemporary collection that features a number of architectural models, such as those by architects Robert A. M. Stern and Annabelle Selldorf, and perhaps most notably a growing body of new media, by artists like Shahzia Sikander, Christian Marclay and Carrie Mae Weems.
Since its founding, the National Academy has included among its members many of the country’s most renowned architects including NA founder Ithiel Town, Alexander Jackson Davis, Charles Follen McKim, Cass Gilbert, John Merven Carrère, Thomas Hastings, Frederick Law Olmsted, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip C. Johnson, I. M. Pei, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Walter Gropius, Anne Griswold Tyng, Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli, Frank O. Gehry, Maya Lin, Robert A. M. Stern, Billie Tsien, Tod Williams, Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, Charles Renfro, Jeanne Gang, Wendy Evans Joseph, Michael Graves, Annabelle Selldorf, David Adjaye, Renzo Piano, Moshe Safdie, Signe Nielsen, Shigeru Ban, and Graham Gund. The Academy’s collection reflects this impressive roster of architect members, with the greatest number of architectural works entering the collection beginning at the turn of the 20th century and continuing through today.
During the Academy’s period of transition to a new home, the institution plans to travel an exhibition of painting highlights from the collection to several American art museums around the country. Organized in conjunction with the American Federation of Arts, this exhibition will explore the National Academy’s contribution to the art and artistic life of this country over the course of the past 200 years. Early works from the first half of the 19th century will explore the origins of the Academy and its early fulfillment of its mission of furthering the cause of American art through education and exhibition. Paintings from the Post- Civil War era will reveal how contemporary European art and art education had a major impact on the development of American painting and transformed the composition and direction of the Academy and its School of Fine Arts. Highlights from the first half of the 20th century will explore the Academy’s nascent role during this time as the purveyor of artistic tradition in the United States, focusing on its geographically diverse and highly representative collection of landscapes and scenes of American life. Works from the post-war years will show how realism and its various strains re-emerged during this time as a viable alternative to abstraction. And finally, a selection of paintings from current members will address contemporary concerns while harkening back to America’s storied past.