The National Arts Club was founded by Charles de Kay, literary and art critic for the New York Times who believed there was a need for a club uniting all of the arts. In March of 1898, de Kay called together a number of civic leaders and men prominent in the art world who supported the idea, elected the first officers and incorporated the Club in 1899.
As stated in a circular issued by the Club, its specified purposes were: to promote the mutual acquaintance of art lovers and art workers in the United States; to stimulate and guide toward practical and artistic expression the artistic sense of the American people; to maintain in the City of New York a Club House...for social purposes in connection with the arts; to provide proper exhibition facilities for such lines of art, especially applied and industrial art, as shall not be otherwise adequately provided for in the same City; and to encourage the publication and circulation of news, suggestions and discussions relating to the fine arts.
During its initial months, the National Arts Club operated from a temporary office at 156 Fifth Avenue. In the search for a permanent site, considerable care was taken to select an auspicious location and accommodations, and in 1899 the first clubhouse was opened at 37 West 34th Street in leased quarters renovated expressly for the Club. Within a year, the gallery and restaurant required additional space, and there was a desire to provide overnight quarters for members visiting from out of town. In 1901 the Club created a corporation, Arts Realty Co., which issued shares to members and other investors for the purpose of raising funds to purchase the adjacent property (39 West 34th Street). This end was accomplished, and when it was decided to move the Club to another location, proceeds from the sale of the lease on 37 West 34th Street and the lot next door, augmented by additional funds subscribed by members, enabled Arts Realty Co. to acquire the Tilden Mansion at 15 Gramercy Park in 1905. Construction was begun immediately on a connecting studio tower to the rear (119-121 East 19th Street), designed by architect and Club President George B. Post. Upon completion, the Club bought the property from Arts Realty Co., issuing both First and Second Mortgage Bonds to individual subscribers. The Gramercy Park property has been occupied by the Club since 1906.
A show of American gold and silver work in October 1899 was the first exhibition held at the National Arts Club. Decorative arts, crafts, and industrial arts figured prominently in early exhibitions, as did designs for civic improvements. The monthly exhibition schedule emphasized contemporary American art, but also included some historical shows. Members of the public were admitted without charge to the galleries, where they could view such innovative and important exhibitions as Pictorial Photographs presented by the Photo-Secession (1902) and a group exhibition featuring the works of Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Arthur B. Davies, and Maurice Prendergast (1904). After about 1907, exhibitions grew more conservative, probably reflecting the personal tastes of Art Committee members rather than a formal opposition of the Club to nonrepresentational art. Increasingly, the exhibition schedule was filled by shows of members' work, the Club's permanent collection (mainly works by artist members, usually given in payment for life membership), the Annual Arts and Crafts exhibitions, Books of the Year exhibitions, and shows organized by various art societies.
In addition to exhibitions, the National Arts Club regularly featured a variety of cultural programs such as concerts, lectures, and dramatic presentations for members and guests. Parties, dinner, dances, and other social activities drew members to the Club, too. During its first years, some artist members expressed dissatisfaction with the high priority given social functions; by 1905, J. Carroll Beckwith, Walter Shirlaw, and Stanford White were among those who had resigned for this reason.
Within the National Arts Club there have been some smaller societies. The earliest of these were The Discus, a short lived dining and debating club, and The Vagabonds, a lunch group of writers, editors, printers and illustrators. The Men's Open Table, founded in 1910, met weekly for more than forty years for dinner followed by a talk, given by a fellow member or an outside, often professional, lecturer. A wide range of topics, not necessarily on the arts, were presented and discussed at the Men's Open Table. The American Institute of Graphic Arts is one of the organizations said to have developed from associations formed and discussions held at the Men's Open Table. A Women's Open Table, patterned after the men's, was established later.
The National Arts Club, unlike many other private clubs founded during the same era, admitted women members from its inception. Throughout its history, the Club's membership has been comprised of artists, musicians, writers, and performers, as well as collectors and supporters of the arts drawn from all parts of the country. Membership peaked at around 1,800 in 1920, declining throughout the Depression and again in the mid-1950s, and remaining at about 600 for the next two decades.
Founding; occupied temporary office at 156 Fifth Ave.
Incorporation; leased clubhouse at 37 West 34th St.; opened first exhibition, American Gold and Silver Work
First donations to permanent collection; Arts Realty Co. formed for the purpose of acquiring and financing the adjacent property (39 West 34th St.)
Arts Realty Co. purchased Gramercy Park property (Tilden Mansion) on behalf of NAC; remodeling of clubhouse and construction of studio tower begun
Plan for financing new clubhouse approved; second Mortgage Bonds issued; clubhouse and studio tower occupied; First Annual Books of the Year Exhibition
Annual Members' Exhibition initiated; Bulletin began publication
First meeting of Men's Open Table (established 1909)
Essay contest, "A Critical Estimate of the Altman Collection"
American Artists War Emergency Fund Committee issues art stamp
Junior Artist membership category created
Essay contest, "Soul of America"
Works by deceased artist life members deaccessioned from permanent collection; fund for refugee artists established
Clubhouse designated New York City Landmark
Clubhouse designated National Historic Landmark
NAC records donated to Archives of American Art