Swan Song

Artist’s models ply their trade in an assortment of venues, posing everywhere from prestigious fine art academies to grimy basement studios. We regard each of our venues in various ways based on our experiences: the one that pays us well, the one with clean fabrics and ample cushions, and the one that causes us aggravation, pretentious people here, nice, down-to-earth folks there. We feel appreciated at some, under-appreciated at others. Comes with the territory.

The National Academy, for me, is the place where my full time art modeling career was launched eleven years ago. I had gone up there just a week earlier to get my name on file, fill out the necessary forms, and let them know I was ready to start whenever they needed me. I had done the same at the Art Students League. Both schools gave me the old, “We have nothing right now but will call you if something comes up”. But lo and behold the call did come, just a few days later from Amelia, the then-model coordinator at the National Academy. With only 24 hours notice, she asked if I was available to fill in for a model who had to cancel. I was thrilled, and grateful for the opportunity. The class was Tuesday evening life drawing with Henry Finkelstein and, to my delighted surprise, it went spectacularly well. Within five minutes of being up on that platform I knew I wanted to do more of this work. I can honestly say that I was sorry the class had to end after three hours! Sitting on the train going back home to Queens, I knew my life was about to change.

In the years since that class, I’ve modeled continuously and steadily at the National Academy. I’ve seen model coordinators come and go, administrators come and go, models, instructors, and building staff come and go. But despite issues with management, model pay rates and other minor turmoils that institutions are prone to, I’ve never wanted to eliminate the school from my modeling roster. I couldn’t. My sentimental attachment to the place, primarily its role in giving me my first ‘break’, was too strong.

An old early photo of me posing for Sharon Sprung‘s painting class at the National Academy. Around 2007 I think:

So it’s with great sadness that I share the news that the historic National Academy, founded in 1825 by a group of Hudson River School artists, is closing this summer. It’s a major bummer for many reasons. Models are losing a work source, teachers are losing jobs, and the students – the eminently loyal, steadfast, longtime National Academy students who register for classes there every quarter – are losing their place of learning. The final summer sessions are underway and I am modeling for Dan Gheno‘s morning and afternoon Saturday painting class – a class I’ve modeled for more times than I can count. In a few weeks, on August 6th, the National Academy on East 89th Street in the Carnegie Hill section of Manhattan, will close its doors … permanently.

A photo of Dan’s class in Studio 2 from last week, with a work-in-progress painting of me by Diana Martocci:

The two painting studios in the National Academy are really fantastic. High ceilings, spacious, bathed in natural north light. Perfect conditions for painters. It doesn’t get much better than this. Photo of Studio 1 on the second floor:

I’ve always thought of the National Academy as the Art Students League without the drama. New York art people who read this blog will probably understand what I mean by that. While the two schools share a few instructors, and some students, the National Academy is devoid of the crowds, cramped spaces, politics, and weird tensions that exist at the League. What the National has been able to achieve all these years is strike the perfect balance between providing solid art instruction in an atelier style while also allowing students to freely express their individuality as artists. Throw in a warm, laid back, convivial environment and a superb location in the rarefied “Museum Mile” strip on Fifth Avenue, and you’ve got a pretty fine place.

Love this engraved lettering on the exterior of the school building:

The list of Academy members throughout its history reads like a who’s who of art luminaries. John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Helen Frankenthaler, Chuck Close, William Merritt Chase, Richard Diebenkorn, Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, Philip Pearlstein, and Frank Gehry are just a few of its famous inductees.

I should clarify that the National Academy’s official announcement is calling this a “hiatus”, implying that the search is on for a new location where the school can be resurrected. I guess we can keep our fingers crossed and hope that happens. The museum part of the National Academy closed last year and the building sold. It is an elegant little gem of a Beaux-Arts mansion and I wonder about its fate. The school was the second shoe to drop. It’s a shame what’s happened. Now I can’t really speak intelligently about the issues which led to this, like how to manage a nonprofit while running on a deficit. I hear it can be done. But I suppose it’s always better to have balanced books, and better still to maintain a clear vision of an institution’s purpose, and engage in sound decision-making.

Then again, nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. And while I’m very sad about the Academy’s imminent closing, I’ll always cherish it as the place that set me on my art modeling journey. Thank you National Academy 🙂

22 thoughts on “Swan Song

  1. dougrogers says:

    Oooawh….:: nice roof!

  2. Sorry to hear this . . . sounded like a magical place. Getting harder to find those places.

    • artmodel says:

      Todd,

      Yes, and I’m hoping that it’s not some harbinger of things to come. If a big city like New York – with all its wealth and real estate – can’t hold on to its arts institutions its rather worrisome.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  3. artmodelandrew says:

    That’s very sad news, especially given your affinity with the school.
    In recent memory, there are several such stories of struggling independent art schools.

    The College of Visual Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota shut down in 2013.

    The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington D.C. was absorbed by George Washington University in 2014. Their museum was absorbed by the National Gallery of Art.

    Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme, Connecticut was absorbed the University of New Haven in 2014.

    Cooper Union in New York City experienced a major financial crisis a few years ago, although they are still in business as an independent entity.

    Even though it is not Music Monday, I thought you might like this swan song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rJoB7y6Ncs

    Andrew

    • artmodel says:

      Andrew,

      Cooper Union managed to survive its financial crisis, but it was indeed a fierce battle. The rest of your list is revealing and tells us a lot about the shaky ground on which many art schools sit. The Art Students League here in NY is having troubles of its own.

      Thanks for your comments and for the Tchaikovsky! 🙂

      Claudia

  4. Diana says:

    Hi Claudia!!

    Thank you so much for featuring my painting of you on your unique blog and the interesting things you wrote about the NA and your extended history at the NA catapulting you from that first day forward. You’re a really good writer too.

    …I’m so flattered! Thank you!

    Love,❤️😉 Diana

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • artmodel says:

      Diana,

      You are most welcome! Thank you for letting me photograph your painting. Dan’s Saturday class is so special and I’m gonna miss it very much. It’s been a steady regular gathering for both models and students for years. Can’t believe it’s going to end, my goodness.

      Thanks for your kind comments about my blog! Much appreciated 🙂

      Claudia

  5. Steve Baker says:

    A fine tribute

  6. Nearly two centuries. Surviving the Great Depression and two World Wars. Succumbing, likely, to greedy real estate owners, insufficient fundraising, financial missteps or a combination of the three.

    It’s really tragic.

    Like your other favorite spot, I hope they find a new location for lower rents, a longer term lease, better location, better facilities – for another 200 years!

    • artmodel says:

      malefiguredrawingmodel,

      It was a combination of things but I’d say your last point, about financial missteps, is the main culprit. This problem was building up for a while and I think we all suspected it was coming, however much we hoped against hope that it wouldn’t come to this.

      I appreciate you making the point about Minerva’s drawing studio and how she managed to find a new location after losing her previous space. Of course, that’s a significantly smaller operation, but we can look at her survival as a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the powers that be at the National Academy need some of her tenacity, smarts, and determination!

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  7. Betty (Brooklyn) Sword says:

    Hi Claudia ; Thank-you for sharing your memories of the National Academy. I don’t know if this is of any help but Dan Gheno, Sharon Sprung, Henry Finkelstein do currently teach at The Art Students League – And Yes there is still lots of drama as with many of the changes taking place (evolution) because of the introduction of cell phones into our society, the change in focus toward more narrative poses (marketing for younger graphic novel students) plus that “Elephant in the Room” tower next door to the league.
    But, you might find some comfort ( momentarily blot out Trump’s world) if you’re posing for a long trusted teacher such as Dan Gheno.
    Refer: “Then again, nothing lasts forever. Change is inevitable. ”
    But then again, maybe a whole new chapter of “Alice chasing the White Rabbit” may not be so bad if you’re working along side Henry William Oelkers and Christophe Nayel ! Only one way to find out.

    – Betty

    • artmodel says:

      Betty!

      So great to hear from you! Yes I know about that ‘elephant in the room’ monstrosity affecting the League. Yet another dubious decision made by an art school in this city. I admit that I have considered returning to the League many times in recent years, and it would certainly be nice, like you said, to be able to continue modeling for Sharon, Henry, and of course Dan, whom you so aptly described as a ‘long trusted teacher’. Your comments are effectively persuading me to seriously consider it! We’ll see what happens.

      And you’re right about how changes, while initially disconcerting, can open doors to new things. That’s interesting what you said about the more narrative poses for the graphic novel artists. As long as we all keep doing what do, sustaining our passions and working hard, I think everything will be ok.

      Thanks so much Betty for your excellent comments! Wonderful to have your voice here 🙂

      Claudia

  8. Jennifer says:

    I’m always very sorry to hear about the closure of an art school – there’s something about the creativity that seems to seep into the fabric of an art school over the years; the smell of paint, canvas and wood; the splatters and spills that the walls and floors collect over decades, rivalling a Jackson Pollock. Several art spaces that I’ve come to love over here have closed down and I know, of course, that Spring Studio has been chased out of its wonderful location. I’ve always admired the number of ateliers that there are in New York and am sorry to hear that they are gradually closing down. Market forces march ever onwards. But, as you say, nothing lasts forever and you can only appreciate the part that something played in your life. A fitting requiem for the passing of an institution that will have been loved and appreciated by many.

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      “Market forces march ever onwards” <— this is so true and on the nose. They are forces that are nearly impossible to stave off. And while it exists throughout the world, New York City embodies it maybe more than any place on earth. Over a year later, I'm still amazed at the survival of Minerva's business! True, Spring Studio's original location was great, but she's going strong on Broome St.

      I'm very sorry to hear that some art spaces by you have also closed down. What is happening? It's tricky to pinpoint whether the problem is poor mismanagement/financial decisions or societal conditions that are simply hostile to such places. I really don't know.

      Thanks for your comments Jennifer!

      Claudia

  9. Dave says:

    Claudia,

    Having recently started modeling myself at a venerable institution where figure drawing has been offered for more than a century, I feel your pain. I hope the National Academy reopens somewhere else soon and that other places pick up all of the sessions you and the other models will be losing in the interim.

    • artmodel says:

      Dave,

      I hope the National Academy can rise again too. To be fair, it has done so throughout its long history, having been in different locations in its nearly 200 year existence, so we can keep our fingers crossed. As you know from your experience, there’s just something about those ‘venerable institutions’ that is deep and comforting.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

  10. Bill says:

    I knew it was coming, but was still sorry to hear this. A sad occasion for all concerned.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      Thank you, yes, it is very sad. I’m hoping that I will be able to post another blog post in the future announcing the next incarnation of the National Academy.

      Claudia

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