American Academy of Arts and Letters

American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medals Julia Ward Howe Wayback Machine
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Audubon Terrace, the campus that the academy shares

The American Academy of Arts and Letters is a 250-member honor society; its goal is to "foster, assist, and sustain excellence" in American literature, music, and art. Located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City, it shares Audubon Terrace, a complex on Broadway between West 155th and 156th Streets, with the Hispanic Society of America and Boricua College.

The academy's galleries are open to the public on a published schedule. Exhibits include an annual exhibition of paintings, sculptures, photographs and works on paper from contemporary artists nominated by its members, and an annual exhibition of works by newly elected members and recipients of honors and awards. A permanent exhibit of the recreated studio of composer Charles Ives was opened in 2014.[1]

The auditorium is sought out by musicians and engineers wishing to record live, as the acoustics are considered among the city's finest. Hundreds of commercial recordings have been made there.[2][3]


Early years

The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters was formed from three parent organizations. The first, the American Social Science Association, was founded in 1865, at Boston. The second was the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which ASSA's membership created in 1898. The qualification for membership in the NIAL was notable achievement in art, music, or literature. The number of NIAL members was at first limited to 150 (all men). The third organization was the American Academy of Arts, which NIAL's membership created in 1904, as a preeminent national arts institution, styling itself after the French Academy.

The AAA's first seven academicians were elected from ballots cast by the entire NIAL membership. They were William Dean Howells, Samuel L. Clemens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, and John Hay, representing literature; Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge, representing art; and Edward MacDowell, representing music.[4] The number of NIAL members was increased in 1904, by the introduction of a two-tiered structure: 50 academicians and 200 regular members. Academicians were gradually elected over the next several years. The elite group (academicians) were called the "Academy," and the larger group (regular members) was called the "Institute." This strict two-tiered system persisted for 72 years (1904–76).

In 1908, poet Julia Ward Howe was elected to the AAA, becoming the first female academician.[5]

In 1976, the NIAL and AAA merged, under the name American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The combined Academy/Institute structure had a maximum of 250 living United States citizens as members, plus up to 75 foreign composers, artists, and writers as honorary members. It also established the annual Witter Bynner Poetry Prize in 1980 to support the work of young poets. The election of foreign honorary members persisted until 1993, when it was abandoned.

Federally chartered corporation

The Academy holds a Congressional charter under Title 36 of the United States Code (42 USC 20301 et seq.), which means that it is one of the comparatively rare "Title 36" corporations in the United States.[6] The 1916 statute of incorporation established this institution amongst a small number of other patriotic and national organizations which are similarly chartered.[7] The federal incorporation was originally construed primarily as an honor. The special recognition neither implies nor accords Congress any special control over the Academy, which remains free to function independently.[8]

Active sponsors of Congressional action were Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and former-President Theodore Roosevelt.[9] The process which led to the creation of this federal charter was accompanied by controversy;[10] and the first attempt to gain the charter in 1910 failed.[11] Sen. Lodge re-introduced legislation which passed the Senate in 1913.[12] The Academy was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York in 1914,[13] which factors in decision-making which resulted in Congressional approval in 1916.[14]


The bronze entrance doors to the administration building on West 155th Street were designed by Academy member Adolph Alexander Weinman and are dedicated to the memory of Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman and to the women writers of the United States.[15]

The Academy occupies three buildings on the west end of the Audubon Terrace complex created by Archer M. Huntington, the heir to the Southern Pacific Railroad fortune and a noted philanthropist. To help convince the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which were separate but related organizations at the time, to move to the complex, Huntington established building funds and endowments for both.[15]

The first building, on the south side of the complex, along West 155th Street, was designed by William M. Kendall of the firm of McKim, Mead & White; Kendall was also a member of the Academy. This Anglo-Italian Renaissance[16] administration building was designed in 1921 and opened in 1923.[15] On the north side, another building housing an auditorium and gallery was designed by Cass Gilbert, also an Academy member, and was built from 1928-30.[15][16] These additions to the complex necessitated considerable alterations to the Audubon Terrace plaza, which were designed by McKim, Mead & White.[15]

In 2007, the American Numismatic Society, which had occupied a Charles P. Huntington-designed building immediately to the east of the Academy's original building, vacated that space to move to smaller quarters downtown. This building, which incorporates a 1929 addition designed by H. Brooks Price,[15] has become the Academy's Annex and houses additional gallery space.[16] In 2009, the space between the Annex and the administration building was turned into a new entrance link, designed by Vincent Czajka with Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.[16]


Members of the Academy are chosen for life and have included some of the leading figures in the American art scene. They are organized into committees that award annual prizes to help up-and-coming artists.[17] Although the names of some of the members of this organization may not be well known today, each of these individuals was well known in their own time. Greatness and pettiness are demonstrable among the Academy members, even during the first decade during which William James declined his nomination on the grounds that his little brother Henry had been elected first.[18] One of the giants of the academy in his time, Robert Underwood Johnson, casts a decades-long shadow in his one-man war against encroaching modernism, blackballing such writers as H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot (before his emigration to England disqualified him for full membership).[19] The former President of Harvard, Charles William Eliot declined election to the Academy, "because he was already in so many societies that he didn't want to add to the number."[20]

Although never explicitly excluded, women were simply not elected to membership in the early years.[21] The admission of Julia Ward Howe in January 1908 (at the age of 88) as the first woman in the Academy was only one incident in the intense debate about the very consideration of female members.[22] In 1926, the election of four women — Edith Wharton, Margaret Deland, Agnes Repplier and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman — was said to have "marked the letting down of the bars to women."[23]

Below is a partial list of past members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its successor institution, the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters:[24]

Current academicians


Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts

The award, a certificate, and $1,000 goes to a United States resident who has "rendered notable service to the arts".

Other awards

The academy gives out numerous awards, with recipients chosen by committees made up of Academy members. Candidates for all awards must be nominated by Academy members, except for the Richard Rodgers awards, for which an application may be submitted.


  1. ^ "The American Academy Of Arts And Letters Announces The Opening Of The Charles Ives Studio". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
  2. ^ John Updike, ed. A Century of Arts & Letters, Columbia University Press (1998), p. 263.
  3. ^ Barbara S. Christen and Steven Flanders, eds. Cass Gilbert, Life and Work: Architect of the Public Domain, W. W. Norton and Company (2001), p. 12.
  4. ^ "Aims of National Academy; Organization Formed to Promote Art, Music, and Literature", The New York Times. January 23, 1909.
  5. ^ First woman elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters, Jan. 28, 1908.
  6. ^ Moe, Ronald C. "Congressionally Chartered Nonprofit Organizations ("Title 36 Corporations"): What They Are and How Congress Treats Them," Archived October 30, 2008, at the Wayback Machine Congressional Research Service, CRS Report to Congress. Order Code RL30340 (April 8, 2004).
  7. ^ "What is a congressional charter?", Knight Ridder Newspapers, December 12, 2007.
  8. ^ Kosar, Kevin R. "Congressional or Federal Charters: Overview and Current Issues." Archived June 27, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Congressional Research Service, CRS Report to Congress. Order Code RS22230 (January 23, 2007).
  9. ^ "Slur on the 'Immortals'; Lodge's Proposed Institutions Shorn of Glory", The New York Times. January 19, 1909.
  10. ^ "Official Action Just Taken Contemplates American Federation.; The Movement to Advance Arts and Letters in America", The New York Times. January 24, 1909.
  11. ^ "A Charterless Academy", The New York Times. February 28, 1910.
  12. ^ "Two New Art Societies; Senator Lodge Introduces Bills Providing for Their Incorporation", The New York Times. January 19, 1913.
  13. ^ "Arts Academy Chartered; Membership Never to Exceed 50 — William Dean Howells President", The New York Times. June 11, 1914.
  14. ^ Walnerth, Charles et al. "Greetings to the American Academy of Arts and Letters", The New York Times. August 25, 1916.
  15. ^ a b c d e f New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission "Audubon Terrace Historic District Designation Report" (January 9, 1979).
  16. ^ a b c d White, Norval; Willensky, Elliot & Leadon, Fran (2010). AIA Guide to New York City (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 558–561. ISBN 978-0-19538-386-7.
  17. ^ "Rival to the Great French Academy Limited to 50 Members, Receives Official Recognition From the U.S. Senate; Something About Those on the Original List", The New York Times. January 26, 1913.
  18. ^ "Editorial Review" of Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters: "Editorial Reviews":
  19. ^ "Editorial Review" of John Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters: Alan Weakland, writing in Booklist.
  20. ^ "Eliot not in Academy; Harvard's President Emeritus Said He Was in Too Many Societies", The New York Times. January 21, 1913.
  21. ^ "Immortals' Plan Hall of Fame Here; Women Would Be Eligible- But "Better Form a Hall of Their Own", The New York Times. November 16, 1913.
  22. ^ Google Books summary: John Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters.
  23. ^ a b "First Women Elected to Institute of Arts; Edith Wharton Among the Four Chosen — American Academy Makes Two Men Members", The New York Times. November 12, 1926.
  24. ^ The history of the National Institute of Arts & Letters and the American Academy of Arts & Letters as Told, Decade by Decade, by Eleven Members: Louis Auchincloss, Jack Beeson, Hortense Calisher, Ada Louise Huxtable, Wolf Kahn, R. W. B. Lewis, Richard Lippold, Norman Mailer, Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.- John Updike, Editor, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x "Academicians Meet Here This Week; Members of Institute Will Join Them in Sessions at the Ritz-Carlton. France to send Greeting; Concert Wherein All Works Are by American Composers Will Be Heard", The New York Times. November 12, 1916.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v "Two New Members for the Academy; Dr. Barrett Wendell and Garl Melchers, the Painter, Honored at Meeting", The New York Times. November 16, 1916.
  27. ^ American Academy of Arts and Letters: Deceased Members Archived July 26, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
  28. ^ "W. R. Thayer Wins Medal; J.G. Huneker and Others Elected to Arts and Letters Institute.
  29. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Academy Honors John Burroughs; Naturalist Praised by Bliss Perry and Hamlin Garland at Memorial Meeting", The New York Times, November 19, 1921.
  30. ^ "Hortense Calisher | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved November 16, 2016.
  31. ^ Associated, The (December 10, 1987). "Arts Academy Elects Dickey and Styron". The New York Times. Retrieved November 16, 2016.
  32. ^
  33. ^ "Bob Dylan not coming to Stockholm to accept Nobel Prize for literature". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved November 16, 2016.
  34. ^ The Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1943, p. 49.
  35. ^ "William Gaddis". Retrieved November 16, 2016.
  36. ^ "Elected to Academy; Brand Whitlock and Hamlin Garland in Arts and Letters", The New York Times. January 12, 1918.
  37. ^ "Dr. Griffis, Friend of Japan, Dies; Educator Who Helped Japanese Adapt Themselves to Western Civilization", The New York Times. February 6, 1928.
  38. ^ "Hitchcock, Ripley", in Stanley Wertheim, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1997, p. 155.
  39. ^ "Huntington Gives Site for Academy; Men of Arts and Letters to Erect Building Near Riverside Drive and 155th St. Next to Hispanic Museum; National Institute and American Academy Accept Offer of Eight City Lots for Site", The New York Times. January 25, 1915.
  40. ^ Pg. 19
  41. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 26, 2011. Retrieved July 30, 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  42. ^ Caemmerer, H. Paul. "Charles Moore and the Plan of Washington." Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Vol. 46/47 (1944/1945): 237–258, 254.
  43. ^ Joseph Pennell, Noted Artist, Dead; Won High Honors as Etcher and Illustrator — Later Taught Art and Wrote Books", The New York Times. April 24, 1926.
  44. ^ "Academy Elects Gay and Lippman; Artist and Journalist Named to Vacancies Left by Deaths of Platt and Shorey", The New York Times. November 9, 1934.
  45. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold (1987). Stern, Erwin (ed.). Arnold Schoenberg Letters. University of California Press. p. 244. ISBN 9780520060098.
  46. ^ "Would Encourage Study of Classics; Academy of Arts and Letters Suggests Courses for Schools and Colleges; Sees Aid to Civilization; Resolution Says Opposite Policy Would Lower the Culture of the American People", The New York Times. December 16, 1918.
  47. ^ "Streep would like to thank the (arts) academy" "DesMoines Register." April 12, 2010.
  48. ^ "Mr. Lorado Taft Dies; Leading Sculptor; Creator of Some of Country's Outstanding Monuments is Stricken at 76; Was Teacher in Chicago; Fountain of Time and Columbus Memorial in Washington Among Chief Works", The New York Times. October 31, 1936.
  49. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters — Deceased Members". Archived from the original on July 26, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  50. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters — Deceased Members". Archived from the original on July 26, 2011. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  51. ^ van Gelder, Lawrence. "Arts Briefing: American Academy Honors", The New York Times. May 19, 2003.
  52. ^ van Gelder, Lawrence. "Arts, Briefly: American Academy Picks Caro and Trillin", The New York Times. April 17, 2008.
  53. ^ a b "Jimmy Ernst Award". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on September 14, 2010. Retrieved October 7, 2010.
  54. ^ Hetrick, Adam."Richard Rodgers Awards Honor Cheer Wars and Rosa Parks Musicals", Playbill, March 12, 2009.