By Sabina Mollot
It was four years ago when the National Arts Club was making far more headlines for a scandal, with its longtime president O. Aldon James replaced over allegations of misusing club money and terrorizing anyone who crossed him, than for the arts it was supposed to be championing. At that time, a longtime active member, Dianne Bernhard, replaced James as president of the club. After serving for one two-year term, she opted to take the position of director of fine arts, which, she explained at the time, was to bring the focus back on the arts, and to get the social club taken seriously by the art world.
Since then, to say she’s achieved her goal would be an understatement, with the club’s five galleries, which are open to the public, running different shows each month, and at least a few times a year with works by high profile contemporary artists or old masters. There are also monthly Sunday salons with guest speakers that tie into the shows and the club is in the process of finding a new artist in residence. The club’s programming hasn’t gone unnoticed by art professionals and collectors, and club membership has even seen a boost because of it.
“It’s brought more young people in and it’s brought more art-minded people,” said Bernhard.
At this point, there are around 2,400 members, up from around 2,000 in 2011.
In February, the club showed drawings and prints by Salvador Dali, including early works that had rarely been seen by the public. Dali also happens to be a two-time winner of the club’s gold medal (in 1957 and 1965), which is seen as a lifetime achievement award. Other shows over the past couple of years have included exhibitions with pieces by Francisco de Goya, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, Picasso and Romare Bearden.
A show in January of de Goya prints in etching and aquatint, that had been gifted to the club two decades ago, drew a crowd of around 500 people to the reception with 50-60 people stopping by each day after that while it was up, “which we would never have had before,” said Bernhard.
Other recent shows have featured works of contemporary artists, in many cases who’ve had recognition, but not necessarily in New York.
During a recent interview in her second floor office in the club building on Gramercy Park South, Bernhard discussed the effort to start forming relationships with galleries and museums on projects, which, she said, began internally.
“We started with the people we knew,” she said, noting that many members turned out to have useful connections. “I don’t think we encountered any resistance. I think everybody we called participated.”
The club’s permanent collection of art also proved to be a big help due to a longstanding rule that member artists had to donate a piece. The rule, in place since the 1880s, disappeared in the 1950s though Bernhard said she hopes to bring it back. A show running through the end of this month featuring works by landscape artist Walter Elmer Schofield and his colleagues, came from the collection.
Because of the policy, the club’s acquired many early 20th century American paintings. “Now we are beginning to get more modern, which is something that in the past the club was not interested in,” said Bernhard. She added, “in order to grow, you have to keep up with the times. We have to keep to keep up with the canvas.”
So far, some shows have come out of the works from the collection, with the club finding themes tying the works together. Another show, running through March, also came from member art, only this time, pieces members had collected.
As part of the James investigation (since concluded with a $950,000 settlement paid by him to the club), every work of art was inventoried, and club brass discovered works they never knew it had from the basement to the building’s residential units.
“In that moment, it became about the art, and ‘oh, look what we found in Apartment 2C or whatever number,” said Bernhard. “Anything that had been given to the club, we had to prove or disprove that it belonged to the club.
“We went through a lot of struggles, and the attorney general said we have to bring back the art.”
Shows, which often take over a year to organize, are put together by the club’s volunteer committees.
“I think with the words National Arts Club come great responsibility,” said Bernhard, “and I think for a while we had not seen that here,” said Bernhard. “People were amazed that it was like a mini-museum right here in Gramercy Park. So we started getting a lot of support from the art world.”
While the club did always have some connection to the art world for its black tie events, Bernhard has previously said the focus then was more about attracting celebrities.
The art world, she noted, “is small, compared to say, the finance world or the entertainment world.”
Education is also a part of the club’s mission and Bernhard saying the idea is to “shepherd young artists.” Recently, the club helped get San Diego-based artist Innocente, who was previously homeless, her first gallery show in New York City.
Upcoming shows will include vintage photography by Michael Halsband, the photographer behind an iconic shot of Warhol with Jean-Michel Basquiat posing with boxing gloves, running from March 30 through April 25 as well as the Will Barnet student show, in which students from art schools around the city are invited to participate and compete $4500 in prizes. An exhibition by Cuban painter Carlos Quintana will run from April 27-May 30, concluding the season.
The club, located at 15 Gramercy Park, is closed during the summer. Next season there are plans for an Edgar Degas sculpture show.