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Living Tradition at the National Academy Museum and School

Published on
March 27

In several of my music education classes at Teachers College, we have been discussing the idea of a “living tradition.” Rather than looking back at music from other times in history and finding ways to replicate it today, we seek to take the ideas of the past and reimagine them in our contemporary context. In all art forms, there is a tension between bowing to traditional forms and eschewing them in favor of contemporary innovations. Art exists both in a “museum”, where great works are preserved, and in a “laboratory”, where unique artistic exploration is valued most highly.

The National Academy is an institution that attempts to sit at the intersection of museum and laboratory, to be a part of a living tradition and to catalog a living history of visual art and architecture. Every year since 1826, the Academy honors new artists as “National Academicians,” who are nominated and voted on by the entire membership of the Academy. Rather than being selected from the past by curators, these artists are honored in their own time by their peers. Once selected as an Academician, the artist must donate one representative work to the National Academy Museum, and prior to 1994 a self-portrait as well. As such, the Academy offers a unique collection of art that was valued highly in its own time.

One room of the museum was dedicated to this permanent collection, and the display was unlike anything I had seen in a museum before. The art was hung “salon-style”; each wall was completely covered with paintings from floor to ceiling. The paintings were arranged in chronological order, so a walk around the room was a walk through art history. Our tour guide, Diana Thompson, a Curator of 19th and Early 20th Century Art at the Museum, pointed out that this room did not represent the entire breadth of what was happening artistically in the world – none of the abstract painters of the early 20th century were represented, for example. However, within the styles selected by academy members past, there was still a large amount of variety, creativity, and development throughout time. Though all the art on display was related to what came before it, each found its own unique mode of expression, its own type of realism.

After touring the National Academy Museum, we visited the connected National Academy School. Here, the National Academy demonstrates its commitment to the “laboratory,” to new artistic exploration. The School has its own gallery space, where student and teacher works are displayed together. The art on display here was certainly in a different style than the art on display in the Museum, and rightly so: rather than finding ways to create within a style of preexisting art, these students have the opportunity to explore their own unique artistic language. The current exhibit, entitled The Paradox of Sculpture, features many pieces that reference the traditional idea of a sculpture, as well as many that reimagine and redefine what a sculpture can be. In addition to student and faculty works there are also works by Academicians Christo and Rauschenberg, and other artists Koons and Litchenstein. I particularly enjoyed a surprisingly beautiful work made primarily out of Caution Tape, laced together in a fine pattern and working its way up to large bright yellow and orange floral shapes. There were many other interesting and thought-provoking works as well, including a hilarious satire of a popular children’s toy, and a powerful work displaying the lasting effects of rape. This diverse collection of new works demonstrates the multitude of ways artists can respond to tradition. Sculpture can be so much more than classical Greek figures carved out of marble, and these students and teachers demonstrate just how much room there is for contemporary innovation and exploration.