MANHATTAN — After a $3.5 million renovation of its six-story 1902 Beaux arts townhouse on Fifth Avenue, the National Academy Museum and School reopened on Friday with three days of free admission to six new shows and an array of art classes.
The museum closed in July of 2010, and many thought the institution that's been part of the city since 1825 would close for good as it faced mounting problems.
It became a pariah in the museum world a few years ago when it sold off two paintings from the Hudson River School to get a needed infusion of cash.
Selling paintings is often frowned upon since museums are considered public trusts with tax-exempt status. The academy's $13.5 million sale resulted in a censure from the Association of Art Museum Directors.
The group made the unusual move of imposing sanctions on the academy, banning loans and collaboration from other institutions, resulting in the resignation of many board members.
The academy, with a slew of new board members, took steps to improve their financial planning and management, and the Museum Directors suspended their sanctions in October, though the institution remains on probation until 2014.
The boycott by other institutions hurt the academy, but for one of its big new shows, a retrospective of member Will Barnet — a painter who lives at Gramercy Park's National Arts Club and celebrated his 100th birthday in May — the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Montclair Art Museum lent paintings, the New York Times reported.
"Given that the Academy has agreed to follow AAMD guidelines and that the show is a significant one in celebration of Barnet’s 100th birthday, we thought it was important to support the exhibition," Adam Weinberg, the Whitney's director, told the Times.
Besides the Barnet retrospective, other current shows include "An American Collection," a survey of 100 paintings from the academy's collection of 7,000 works of art and architecture; "The Artist Revealed: A Panorama of Great Artist Portraits," which includes painter Thomas Eakins' only fully realized self-portrait (1902) and portraits from such famous artists as Jacob Lawrence, Chuck Close and Wayne Theibaud; and "Parabolas to Post Modern: Architecture from the Academy's Collection," which includes works from such famed architects as Eero Saarinen and Frank Gehry.
Art lovers will also have the chance to take classes in still life composition, drawing from live models, printmaking and copying masterpieces.
The academy reopens with redesigned public spaces, starting with the grand lobby where the academy's historic legacy is on full display with a ceiling engraved with nearly 2,000 names of the members of the academy since 1825. The museum is also celebrating the addition of such newly-inducted well-known artists as sculptor Janine Antoni, and painters Dana Schutz and John Currin.
The museum is hoping to step up its game, but its ambitions still seem modest. Carmine Branagan, the National Academy's director, is hoping to increase its attendance — which only averaged 20,000 visitors annually — by 20 percent over the next three years, she told the Wall Street Journal.
Branagan didn't think the institution could recapture its place as the major cultural force it was in the 19th century, but told the Journal, "What the academy can do is reflect the living story of American art, and come to terms with who are as artists who are shaping that narrative."
The academy will still take time to dig itself out of its financial woes, Branagan acknowledged, explaining that even with $11 million from the controversial sale tucked away as a reserve fund, it has an annual operating budget of $6 million, and she does not expect the institution to break even for another three to five years.
But she is hoping to brighten its reputation and make membership to the academy — which will now include visual artists of all types rather than just painters, sculptors, graphic artists and architects, as was previously allowed.
"We want people to say, 'Who got inducted into the National Academy this year?'" she told the Journal.
The National Academy Museum is at 1083 Fifth Ave. at 89th Street and will be free on Sept. 16 - 18, from 11 a.m - 6 p.m.