Art Students League opens its doors to the public after 75 years

“ST[art]UP,” the 125th anniversary celebration of the Art Students League of New York’s American Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street, will include workshops for kids and adults alike, a Saturday night “house party” that promises dancing, costumes and performances, and a massive art auction with works from teachers, students and alumni up for sale.

But for history buffs, the most appealing aspect of the two days of festivities may be the tours. This is the first time in 75 years that the League’s doors have been open to the general public, ever since the gallery was closed in order to add more studios for soldiers returning from World War II and taking classes on the GI Bill. On view will be spaces in which some of the art world’s biggest names — Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Roy Lichtenstein, to name a few — taught, learned and created.

“The history of those spaces,” says League executive director Michael Rips, “in terms of their architectural importance, their connection to [architect Henry] Hardenberg, their connection to fabled galleries in Paris, their importance as exhibition spaces in New York, are well appreciated by people who work [there], but they’re entirely unknown to the rest of New York.”

amNewYork spoke with Rips and Rachel Strader, manager for special events and partnerships, about the history of the League, the lore of its building and the decision to open it up for a weekend.

Was there a hesitance to open the building to the public after such a long time?

Michael Rips: Oh yes. People here treat this as a temple. It’s sacred. And when I say it cradles the intelligence and techniques of the Renaissance, it really does. There are a number of classes here that teach things that aren’t taught anywhere else. The students, the instructors, are terribly attached to the space. There are painting studios which have only had four instructors over 120 years. They’re studios in which Thomas Hart Benton taught Jackson Pollack about painting. Often, those studios will have had a famous instructor who passes it down to an ascendant pupil, who will then teach for another 40 years, inheriting the techniques of their prior instructor. It was the genius of Rachel and the board who said, “Let’s open this place up! Let’s have people see it for the first time in 75 years, since the exhibitions stopped, and tell everybody and show everybody the genius of what’s being produced.” Once the exhibitions stopped, the only people who were allowed in were the members, and to be a member you had to be an artist. It became self-contained.

The Art Students League is committed to teaching these traditional techniques, but it’s doing so at a time where art seems to be moving forward at the speed of light. How does the League stay rooted in tradition while also giving room for what’s next?

MR: It’s really a debate that is ongoing at this institution, particularly since a lot of the history of this institution is about being experimental, being at the forefront of artistic traditions and movements. The artists who formed it, themselves, did it to break away from traditional institutions. In the mid-20th century, you had Pollack and Adolph Gottlieb and Stuart Davis up in the cafeteria fighting with each other, throwing bottles of Scotch and bourbon, fighting about where art should be going. The Art Students League has a tradition of being at the forefront of art theory and art practice.

What do you want people to take away from these events?

Rachel Strader: It’s very accessible. It’s no longer a place for just members, we accept students here, we have students ranging from the age of 8 to 18, young artists, emerging artists, and we have advanced artists, who are coming in and honing their skills, who understand the importance of always practicing. And you can make art! You can get your hands dirty in clay, you’ve got printmaking, you’ve got people of all ages and all skill levels.

IF YOU GO: “ST[art]UP” kicks off with a reception and auction on Friday and continues with tours, workshops and a “house party” on Saturday. 215 W. 57th St., theartstudentsleague.org.