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New York's Art Students League
The teaching of young people the ways and means of creating art has been a difficult undertaking for centuries. It still is. There are three reasons for this. Art is difficult. The students are difficult, and so too, in many cases, are the instructors who teach them. "In the beginning" as the Bible says (though perhaps not going back quite that far), would-be artists learned their trade one-on-one from other individual artists (often their fathers), helping them in their work--what we would call today "on-the-job-training." Later, a somewhat more efficient method of group instruction developed, in what has come to be known as the apprentice system, where dozens of young men (rarely women) would indenture themselves to a master artist or craftsman to learn "how to" and just as important, "how not to." Then in the 1600s, first in Florence, then later in Rome, Paris, and other developing art centres, and parallel with the development of universities across Europe, working artists began to seek government approval and support for a more formal system, what has come to be known as academies. These, in various forms, persist today, both as the actual historic institutions and as models for most university art curriculums. It has become known as the "studio system."

However, during the nineteenth century, there began to develop on the side a less formal and less structured, and some would contend a less efficient system for training young artists. In Paris, where it first began, instructors at the Ecole des Beaux-arts (run by the Academy) began moonlighting, taking on students from their academic classes and others in their private studios. This developed into what has come to be known as the "atelier system." Without it, most of the Impressionists would never have had much formal (or informal as it were) art training. In some ways, it was like a harkening back to the old apprenticeship system albeit under less formal and far less stringent conditions.

For the most part these two systems have coexisted for more than a hundred years, harmoniously, but occasionally competitively, and at times with some rancour. The studio system is highly structured with a formal, set curriculum, lots of rules, and a largely conservative, reactionary outlook in line with "protecting" the profession as much as imparting knowledge. (It's often been compared to boot camp.) The atelier system, on the other hand, has merely time, instruction, and facilities. (It's often been derisively compared to summer camp.) Its informality is both a help and a hindrance, allowing students the flexibility to set their own schedules, work at their own pace...or not...all too often, the latter. In one, the student is marched through a course of study, in the other he or she meanders.

Starting in 1825, this country copied England and set up the American Academy of Art in New York under the guidance of such painting names as Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, Samuel F. B. Morse, and architect, Alexander Jackson Davis. Informally at first, then after 1831 in tuition-free formal classes taught by volunteer artists and instructors; they began taking on the best and brightest this nation had to offer in the arts. This continued until the nation-wide financial difficulties marking the 1870s when economic pressure grew to start charging tuition. A fight developed among the directors. In 1875, they reached a "compromise" of sorts, suspending ALL classes rather than charge tuition or go into debt to avoid doing so. In their stubbornness, they had caused their studio system to collapse. It had never operated under government support and control (as had its European models) and in refusing to adopt the strictly "business" approach of Europe's parallel atelier system, chose instead to dispose of both baby and bath water in one fell swoop. By this time of course, their students numbered in the hundreds. In effect, they were "hung out to dry."

As a result, students took matters into their own hands. They pooled their meagre funds and started their own "school." It wasn't much. They met in a 24'x30' "cockloft" on the fourth floor of a building at 108 Fifth Avenue. They called it the Art Students League. At first there were no instructors, no heat, no course of study, and only occasionally the services of a model. Eventually all these things took care of themselves even as, three years later, the American Academy saw the light, re-instituted classes, and reluctantly started charging admission. Some of their students came back, most did not. The atelier system had struck a chord, freeing them from the ever-increasing stilted outlook they had known before, allowing them the freedom to try new things, and perhaps fail at them with no fear of academic consequences.

It was a rough and tumble existence, but the League survived, even flourished. Names such as William Merrit Chase, Kenyon Cox, Thomas Eakins, Daniel Chester French, Childe Hassam, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and John H. Twachtman all taught at the school. Furthermore, a list of their students reads like a "Who's Who" of American art, including Romare Bearden, Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Reginald Marsh, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and John Sloan. The League developed such innovations as a summer school in Woodstock, New York (1909-1922 and 1947-1979), and one of the earliest "outreach" programs aimed at training students in the public schools. Today, the League is housed in a rather stodgy looking old stone structure at 215 West 57th Street just off Broadway and a couple blocks south of Central Park with a program borrowing the best of both the studio and the atelier systems. It serves over 2,000 students. Meanwhile, further uptown, the National Academy of Art, with largely the same program, has about half that.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 August 2000


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