1898 was the year of the foundation of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and was an offshoot of the American Social Science Foundation, who selected the initial inductees into the Institute. The members were selected as examples of the highest artistic achievements of their time, and were initially limited to one hundred fifty members, which was then expanded to two hundred fifty in 1907.
foundation and history
In 1904, the American Academy of Arts and Letters was created as an inner body of the Institute. This body was a reflection of the famed French Academy, and was to be comprised of fifty individuals selected from the membership of the Institute. Those first seven inductees were William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John La Farge, Mark Twain, John Hay, and Edward MacDowell. These 7 were to select 8 more members, who then chose 5 and so forth until the full complement was achieved. Membership was for life and required no dues.
The members were each assigned a numbered chair, that number corresponding to the order in which they had been selected. At first these 'chairs' were figurative, but became concrete in 1923. Robert Underwood Johnson visited the French Academy in 1911 and was disappointed to find the vaunted French members seating entirely mundane. He had envisioned those seats as manifesting the grandeur befitting membership in such an august society. Returning to America, he resolved to do better, and set about fundraising towards that end. He solicited a contributor, (Mrs. Elizabeth Cochran Bowen), to give $5,000 toward the project. When the Institute took their new location in 1923, all was ready. The chairs were carved of Italian walnut and upholstered with leather. For the next 70 years the membership each held one of these numbered seats, replete with a plaque on the back giving the name and dates of tenure of previous holders.
The Institute and Academy were a 2 tier system. The Institute was incorporated by an Act of Congress in 1913, and the Academy followed in 1916. New joint headquarters were built in 1923, funded by member Archer Milton Huntington. Huntington also created an endowment for each of the 2 bodies. The location of the new headquarters was, and still is, 633 West 155th Street, New York City. NY.
In 1976 the membership voted to merge, becoming one institution while maintaining the two tiered membership. The new institution was named the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. This continued until 1992, when the membership of both the Institute and Academy voted down the two tiered system, becoming a single body of two hundred fifty members. The consolidated institution was named the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The stated mission of the American Academy of Arts and Letters is to foster and sustain interest in literature, music, and the fine arts by identifying and encouraging individual artists. The primary means is through a system of awards and prizes. The Academy sponsors exhibitions and performances, as well as the purchase of works for distribution to appropriate venues. Candidates for awards and prizes are upon nomination by a member of the Academy with the single exception of the Richard Rodgers Award, which is subject to an open application process. Following nomination, winners are selected by committees comprised of Academy members. The list of the various awards is a lengthy one, and can be viewed at the Academy's website.
A who's who of literature, music, and fine art
Since its inception, the Academy in all its various incarnations has been a virtual 'who's who' in literature, music, and the fine arts. Though some of the members are unfamiliar to modern eyes, their accomplishments in their own day won them the distinction of membership. Inclusion is regarded as the highest formal recognition of merit in this country.
Also included as honorary members are artists whose work falls outside the parameters if the Academy charter. These are divided into American and Foreign honorary members. An example of an American honorary member is Martin Scorsese, whose film directorial accomplishments are substantial while being strictly outside of the Academy giudelines. American honorary membership is limited to 10 members. Foreign honorary membership is comprised of 75 persons whose accomplishments in literature, music, and fine arts make them of note.
Both American and Foreign honorary members possess all rights and priveleges of full members with the exception of voting.Sources: