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National Arts Club Votes in New President

By Amy Zimmer | May 17, 2013 6:12pm
 Rev. Tom Pike, former rector of the Calvary-St. George's Church, is the new National Arts Club's president.
Rev. Tom Pike, former rector of the Calvary-St. George's Church, is the new National Arts Club's president.
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Tom Pike

MANHATTAN — The National Arts Club voted a new president into office Thursday night, ushering in the next chapter at the 115-year-old Gramercy Park institution, where allegations of fiscal mismanagement under O. Aldon James touched off investigations by authorities.

Longtime club member Rev. Thomas Pike — the retired rector from the nearby Calvary-St. George's Church — hopes to get the historic Tilden mansion back in order after a tumultuous couple of years.

"I'm going to concentrate on making sure that the club is financially sound," said Pike, who has been an active club member for 40 years. "I'm going to continue to emphasize the importance of the fine arts in the life of the club.

"The club has had some hard times in the past," he continued, "but it's got a wonderful future."

Pike is aiming to attract new, younger members and former members who may have been "alienated in the past." He's hoping artists as well as others in the arts world flock to the club, which counted such past illustrious members as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, along with the late Will Barnet and Everett Raymond Kinstler, who has painted many presidents. 

"The idea is getting people who are not only practicing artists but also collectors and central to the arts talking together," Pike said.

Pike, who served as a city Landmarks Preservation Commissioner for 17 years and is known as a preservationist, said he "cherished the legacy" of the club — which was one of the first that admitted women from the very beginning — and  also said he would ensure the club "continues to maintain and repair its landmark building."

He takes the reins from Dianne Bernhard, a painter and philanthropist, who served as the club's president after James stepped down in March 2011 amid growing controversy.

James, his twin brother, John, and their friend Steven Leitner allegedly stockpiled club apartments — rented at below-market rates or for free — to hoard antiques and other junk they'd buy on flea market sprees using club funds.

James was slapped with a $2 million lawsuit by the Attorney General's office in September after an 18-month probe found he used the club for personal benefit.

James' lawyer Gerald Shargel had said he would fight the "absurd" lawsuit, telling DNAinfo New York that "every decision [James] made he made for the benefit of the club and not himself."

The AG's office also stipulated a host of other oversight changes in a settlement with the club, including Bernhard's departure as part of a reconstituted board and that the club's much-coveted apartments be made equally available to members "at no less than fair market value."

The District Attorney's office also investigated the club but did not bring any criminal charges against James.

Since James' tenure ended, he and the club have been battling through the court system in an array of legal challenges, costing the club at least $500,000.

James fought the club's attempts to oust him as a member and to evict him. But this week a housing court judge issued a warrant for his eviction along with his brother and Leitner. The eviction, however, is on hold until July 31, pending an appeal.

Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, praised Pike's election as an opportunity for a fresh start for the club.

"With Tom, who is a beloved pastor and a dedicated preservationist, both the National Arts Club and Gramercy Park community could not be more fortunate to have him," said Harrison, who serves as a trustee of Gramercy Park and is known as the “Mayor of Gramercy Park.”

"He is going to create a calm, caring environment there that is dedicated to the arts in a very smart way," added Harrison, who noted that park trustees were also embroiled in legal actions with James when he was in office and that many National Arts Club members left since they didn't want their dues going toward lawsuits.

Because of the animosity between the club and park trustees and block association, Bernhard reached out to Harrison to "mend fences," after which Harrison launched a membership drive for the National Arts Club, she said. Over the last four months, she netted 174 pending applications for the club, Harrison said.

"I told people there's a new day at the club," she said.