American Academy of Arts and Letters

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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, 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. Opened in 2014, a permanent exhibit is the recreated studio of composer Charles Ives.[1]

The auditorium is sought out by musicians wishing to record live because the acoustics are considered among the worlds finest.[citation needed]


Early years

The Academy was created in 1904 by the membership of the National Institute of Arts and Letters styling itself after the French Academy. The first seven academicians were elected from ballots cast by the entire 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.[2] In 1908 poet Julia Ward Howe was elected, and thus became the first female academician.[3] In 1976 the two groups combined under the name American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1992 members adopted the current organizational title.

The oldest organization associated with the group was founded in 1865 at Boston. The American Social Science Association produced the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1898. The qualification for membership in this body was to have made notable achievements in art, music, or literature. The membership was at first limited to 150. In 1904 the membership was increased by the Institute's introducing a two-tiered structure: 50 elite members and 200 regular members. The people in the elite group were gradually elected over the next several years. The larger group was called the "Institute," while the elite group was called the "Academy."

The strict two-tiered system persisted for 72 years (1904–76). In 1976 members created an organization called the 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 a young poet. The two-tiered system persisted until 1993, when it was completely 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.[4] The 1916 statute of incorporation established this institution amongst a small number of other patriotic and national organizations which are similarly chartered.[5] 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.[6]

Active sponsors of Congressional action were Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and former-President Theodore Roosevelt.[7] The process which led to the creation of this federal charter was accompanied by controversy;[8] and the first attempt to gain the charter in 1910 failed.[9] Sen. Lodge re-introduced legislation which passed the Senate in 1913.[10] The Academy was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York in 1914,[11] which factors in decision-making which resulted in Congressional approval in 1916.[12]


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 E. Wilkins Freeman and to the women writers of the United States.[13]

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.[13]

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 himself a member of the Academy. This Anglo-Italian Renaissance[14] administration building was designed in 1921 and opened in 1923.[13] 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.[13][14] These additions to the complex necessitated considerable alterations to the Audubon Terrace plaza, which were designed by McKim, Mead & White.[13]

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,[13] has become the Academy's Annex and houses additional gallery space.[14] 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.[14]


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.[15] Although the names of some of the members of this organization may not be well known today, each of these men were 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.[16] 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).[17] The former President of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot declined election to the Academy "because he was already in so many societies that he didn't want to add to the number."[18]

Although never explicitly excluded, women were simply not elected to membership in the early years.[19] 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.[20] In 1926, the election of four women – Edith Wharton, Margaret Deland, Agnes Repplier and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – was said to have "marked the letting down of the bars to women."[21]

Below is a partial list of past members of the National Institute and Academy of Arts & Letters:[22]

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.

  • Academy Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – In 1941 the Academy established awards to encourage creative work in the arts. Now $7500 each, Academy Awards are given annually: five to artists, eight to writers, four to composers, and three to architects.
  • Marc Blitzstein Award – The $5,000 award is given periodically to a composer, lyricist, or librettist, "to encourage the creation of works of merit for musical theater and opera". The award was established in 1965 by the friends of Marc Blitzstein, an Academy member.
  • Michael Braude Award for Light Verse – The $5,000 biennial award is given "for light verse written in English regardless of the country of origin of the writer".
  • Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize – The annual prize of $5,000 goes to an architect of any nationality who has "made a contribution to architecture as an art".
  • Benjamin H. Danks Award – The $20,000 award is given in rotation to a composer of ensemble works, a playwright, and a writer (fiction, non-fiction, poetry). Since 2002 the Academy has administered the prize established by Roy Lyndon Danks in honor of his father, Benjamin Hadley Danks.
  • Jimmy Ernst Award – Established by Dallas Ernst in memory of her husband, the Jimmy Ernst Award of $5,000 is given to a painter or sculptor "whose lifetime contribution to his or her vision has been both consistent and dedicated".[45] The award has been presented annually since 1990.[45]
  • E. M. Forster Award – E.M. Forster, a foreign honorary member of the Academy, bequeathed the U.S. royalties of his posthumous novel Maurice to Christopher Isherwood, who transferred them to the Academy to establish this $15,000 award. It is given to a young English writer for an extended visit to the United States.
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medals – Each year the Academy awards Gold Medals for distinguished achievement in two categories in rotation. The Gold Medal is given for the entire work of the recipient.
  • Walter Hinrichsen Award – The Walter Hinrichsen Award is given for the publication of "a work by a mid-career American composer."
  • William Dean Howells Medal – This award is given once every five years in recognition of the most distinguished American novel published during that period. It was established in 1925.
  • The Charles Ives Prize – Six scholarships of $7500 and two fellowships of $15,000 are now given annually to young composers. In 1998, the Academy established the Charles Ives Living, an award of $75,000 a year for a period of three years given to an American composer. The award's purpose is to free "a promising talent from the need to devote his or her time to any employment other than music composition" during that period.
  • Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction – The $5,000 prize is given for the best published first novel or collection of short stories in the preceding year.
  • Wladimir and Rhoda Lakond Award – an annual award of $5,000 "given either to a composition student or an experienced composer".
  • Goddard Lieberson Fellowships – Two Goddard Lieberson Fellowships of $15,000 are given annually to young composers of extraordinary gifts. The CBS Foundation endowed the fellowships in memory of the late president of CBS Records.
  • Russell Loines Award for Poetry
  • American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit – The Award of Merit, a medal and $10,000, is given each year, in rotation, to an outstanding person in America representing one of the following arts: Painting, the Short Story, Sculpture, the Novel, Poetry, and Drama.
  • Metcalf Awards – In 1986, the Academy received a bequest from Addison M. Metcalf, son of the late member Willard L. Metcalf, for two awards to honor young writers and artists of great promise. The Willard L. Metcalf Award in Art and the Addison M. Metcalf Award in Literature are biennial awards of $10,000.
  • Katherine Anne Porter Award – This biennial award of $20,000 goes to a prose writer who has demonstrated achievements and dedication to the literary profession.
  • Arthur Rense Prize – In 1998, the $20,000 award was established to honor "an exceptional poet" once every third year.
  • Richard Rodgers Awards for Musical Theater – These awards subsidize full productions, studio productions, and staged readings of musicals put on by nonprofit theaters in New York City. The plays are by composers and writers not already established in this field. These are the only awards for which the Academy accepts applications.[46]
  • Rome Prize in Literature – Every year the Academy selects and partly subsidizes two young writers for a one-year residence at the American Academy in Rome.
  • Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Awards – Each of these two awards are for $5,000. The first, established in 1956, is for a fiction work of "considerable literary achievement" published in the previous year. The second, created in 1959, is for a young painter "who has not yet been accorded due recognition".
  • Medal for Spoken Language – This medal, awarded from time to time, recognizes individuals who set a standard of excellence in the use of spoken language.
  • The Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings – These Livings provide an annual stipend of $50,000 a year for five years, awarded to two writers of English prose literature to enable them to devote their time exclusively to writing.
  • Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award – This $10,000 award is given each year to honor a writer of "recent prose that merits recognition for the quality of its style".
  • Morton Dauwen Zabel Award – This $10,000 biennial award is given in rotation to a poet, writer of fiction, or critic, "of progressive, original, and experimental tendencies".



  1. "THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS ANNOUNCES THE OPENING OF THE CHARLES IVES STUDIO". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved March 31, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Aims of National Academy; Organization Formed to Promote Art, Music, and Literature." New York Times. January 23, 1909.
  3. First woman elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters, Jan. 28, 1908
  4. Moe, Ronald C. "Congressionally Chartered Nonprofit Organizations ("Title 36 Corporations"): What They Are and How Congress Treats Them," Congressional Research Service, CRS Report to Congress. Order Code RL30340 (April 8, 2004).
  5. "What is a congressional charter?", Knight Ridder Newspapers, Dec. 12, 2007.
  6. Kosar, Kevin R. "Congressional or Federal Charters: Overview and Current Issues," Congressional Research Service, CRS Report to Congress. Order Code RS22230 (January 23, 2007).
  7. "Slur on the 'Immortals'; Lodge's Proposed Institutions Shorn of Glory," New York Times. January 19, 1909.
  8. "Official Action Just Taken Contemplates American Federation.; The Movement to Advance Arts and Letters in America," New York Times. January 24, 1909.
  9. "A Charterless Academy," New York Times. February 28, 1910.
  10. "Two New Art Societies; Senator Lodge Introduces Bills Providing for Their Incorporation," New York Times. January 19, 1913.
  11. "Arts Academy Chartered; Membership Never to Exceed 50 – William Dean Howells President," New York Times. June 11, 1914.
  12. Walnerth, Charles et al. "Greetings to the American Academy of Arts and Letters," New York Times. August 25, 1916.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission "Audubon Terrace Historic District Designation Report" (January 9, 1979)
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 White, Norval & Willensky, Elliot with Leadon, Fran (2010). AIA Guide to New York City (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195383867.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>, pp.558-561
  15. "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," New York Times. January 26, 1913.
  16. "Editorial Review" of Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters: "Editorial Reviews":
  17. "Editorial Review" of John Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters: Alan Weakland, writing in Booklist
  18. "Eliot not in Academy; Harvard's President Emeritus Said He Was in Too Many Societies" New York Times. January 21, 1913.
  19. "Immortals' Plan Hall of Fame Here; Women Would Be Eligible- But "Better Form a Hall of Their Own," New York Times. November 16, 1913.
  20. Google Books summary: John Updike's A Century of Arts and Letters
  21. 21.0 21.1 "First Women Elected to Institute of Arts; Edith Wharton Among the Four Chosen – American Academy Makes Two Men Members," New York Times. November 12, 1926.
  22. 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
  23. 23.00 23.01 23.02 23.03 23.04 23.05 23.06 23.07 23.08 23.09 23.10 23.11 23.12 23.13 23.14 23.15 23.16 23.17 23.18 23.19 23.20 23.21 23.22 "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," New York Times. November 12, 1916.
  24. 24.00 24.01 24.02 24.03 24.04 24.05 24.06 24.07 24.08 24.09 24.10 24.11 24.12 24.13 24.14 24.15 24.16 24.17 24.18 24.19 24.20 24.21 "Two New Members for the Academy; Dr. Barrett Wendell and Garl Melchers, the Painter, Honored at Meeting" New York Times. November 16, 1916.
  25. American Academy of Arts and Letters: Deceased Members, accessed January 5, 2010
  26. "W. R. Thayer Wins Medal.; J.G. Huneker and Others Elected to Arts and Letters Institute.
  27. 27.00 27.01 27.02 27.03 27.04 27.05 27.06 27.07 27.08 27.09 27.10 "Academy Honors John Burroughs; Naturalist Praised by Bliss Perry and Hamlin Garland at Memorial Meeting," New York Times. November 19, 1921.
  28. [1]
  29. "Elected to Academy; Brand Whitlock and Hamlin Garland in Arts and Letters," New York Times. January 12, 1918.
  30. "Dr. Griffis, Friend of Japan, Dies; Educator Who Helped Japanese Adapt Themselves to Western Civilization," New York Times. February 6, 1928.
  31. Stanley Wertheim, A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1997, page 155 [2]
  32. "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," New York Times. January 25, 1915.
  33. "Academicians Meet Here This Week; Members of Institute Will Join Them in Sessions at the Ritz-Carlton," New York Times. November 12, 1916.
  34. Caemmerer, H. Paul. "Charles Moore and the Plan of Washington." Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Vol. 46/47 (1944/1945): 237-258, 254.
  35. Joseph Pennell, Noted Artist, Dead; Won High Honors as Etcher and Illustrator – Later Taught Art and Wrote Books," New York Times. April 24, 1926.
  36. "Academy Elects Gay and Lippman; Artist and Journalist Named to Vacancies Left by Deaths of Platt and Shorey," New York Times. November 9, 1934.
  37. Schoenberg, Arnold (1987). Stern, Erwin (ed.). Arnold Schoenberg Letters. University of California Press. p. 244.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  38. "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," New York Times. December 16, 1918.
  39. "Streep would like to thank the (arts) academy" "DesMoines Register." April 12, 2010.
  40. "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," New York Times. October 31, 1936.
  41. "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Deceased Members". Retrieved August 13, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Deceased Members". Retrieved August 13, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  43. van Gelder, Lawrence. "Arts Briefing: American Academy Honors," New York Times. May 19, 2003.
  44. van Gelder, Lawrence. "Arts, Briefly: American Academy Picks Caro and Trillin," New York Times. April 17, 2008.
  45. 45.0 45.1 "Jimmy Ernst Award". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on September 14, 2010. Retrieved October 7, 2010. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  46. Hetrick, Adam."Richard Rodgers Awards Honor Cheer Wars and Rosa Parks Musicals",, March 12, 2009


External links