A venerable Manhattan institution debuts its new look post-lockdown.
From its posh Gramercy Park location to its century-old history, The National Arts Club has long been revered as one of Manhattan’s defining cultural landmarks. During lockdown, however, the club has undergone a sweeping transformation: upgrading its exhibitions spaces, redesigning its historic interior, and embracing a newly digital dawn.
In September 2020 the club partnered with #DigitalArtMonth, a new media festival which mounted a series of digital art exhibitions all across New York City. These digital artworks mostly took the form of augmented and virtual reality interventions, viewable through smartphones via QR codes. While AR and VR artforms have become relatively ubiquitous during lockdown (hello NFTs), the National Arts Club’s collaboration with an emerging tech platform heralded a new chapter of innovation for the institution, driven by both necessity and the prevailing zeitgeist.
The National Arts Club was founded in 1898 by Charles De Kay, an American diplomat who was seduced by the cultural scene he witnessed in Europe. Wanting to emulate the kind of arts community he so admired abroad, De Kay reached out to major artists, writers, critics, and arts patrons of the day — and the National Arts Club was born.
From the outset, women were permitted to join the club as full members — an unusual policy at the time — and artists were given lifetime memberships in exchange for an artwork valued at around $1,000 (about $30,000 today). Those artworks formed the foundation of the National Arts Club’s permanent collection, which has grown to approximately 650 artworks (many now worth a small fortune).
Housed in an opulent mansion once owned by former NY Governor Tilden, the club’s exhibition spaces went from Parisian-salon-chic to contemporary-white-cube during lockdown, without sacrificing the ambiance for which the venue is known (and beloved). Ornate stained glass from the turn of the century now mixes with contemporary paintings and minimalist MCM design that’s as iconic as it is Instagram-ready.
The club’s long-time curator, Robert Yahner, personifies the intellectual curiosity of an institution conscientiously bridging the past with the present. A one-time modern dancer, Yahner has worked with a menagerie of New York legends, including John Cage and David Wojnarowicz.
“The club was quite conservative for a long time,” Yahner says, “but I think we're knocking that wall down now and knocking it down rather quickly. One positive thing about lockdown was that it showed us the possibilities of virtual programming, not just for our members but for people all around the world. It gave us an opportunity to collaborate with institutions we never thought of collaborating with before, including the Louvre.”
Inaugurating the club’s East gallery is an exhibition of works on paper by Medal of Honor winners — an award bestowed every year by The National Arts Club to deserving champions of culture — including Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Will Barnet, Christo and Jean-Claude, Duane Michals and Salvador Dali. (Other notable past winners include Margaret Atwood, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda). Yahner is equally excited, however, by the club’s new project space, which can be rented out by emerging artists for experimental exhibitions at very affordable rates (especially considering the club’s ultra-exclusive Gramercy Park address).
“Lockdown actually helped us to stretch our tech muscles,” he explains, noting that The National Arts Club is now also partners with Google Arts & Culture — who digitized over 70 pieces in the permanent collection, all of which can be viewed online.
“We are very proud of not just our arts programming, but of all the committees: fashion, architecture, archaeology,” Yahner says. “I think what's wonderful about the club in this moment in time, and a lot of this comes from the programming that we did through the summer, and through the lockdown, is that we're attracting a lot of young emerging artists and professionals that realize the Club is really committed to moving forward: there's a new vibe here that we're embracing technology and innovation. And I think that’s just marvelous.”