Medal commemorating the founding of the Grand Central Art Galleries
|Location||New York City, New York, United States|
|Director||Erwin S. Barrie, James D. Cox|
|President||Walter Leighton Clark|
The Grand Central Art Galleries were the exhibition and administrative space of the nonprofit Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association, an artists' cooperative established in 1922 by Walter Leighton Clark together with John Singer Sargent, Edmund Greacen, and others. Artists closely associated with the Grand Central Art Galleries included Hovsep Pushman, George de Forest Brush, and especially Sargent, whose posthumous show took place there in 1928.
The Galleries were active from 1923 until 1994. For 29 years they were located on the sixth floor of Grand Central Terminal. At their 1923 opening, the Galleries covered 14,000 square feet (1,300 m2) and offered nine exhibition areas and a reception room, described as "the largest sales gallery of art in the world." In 1958 the Galleries moved to the second floor of the Biltmore Hotel, where they had six exhibition rooms and an office. They remained at the Biltmore for 23 years, until it was converted into an office building. The Galleries then moved to 24 West 57th Street, where they remained until they ceased activity.
In addition to their main offices, the Grand Central Art Galleries directed a number of other enterprises. They launched the Grand Central School of Art in 1923, opened a branch gallery at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street in 1933, and in 1947 established Grand Central Moderns to show non-figurative works. The Grand Central Art Galleries were also responsible for the creation, design, and construction of the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
The Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association was established in 1922 by Walter Leighton Clark together with John Singer Sargent, Edmund Greacen, and others. As stated in the Galleries' 1934 catalog, their goal was to "give a broader field to American art; to exhibit in a larger way to a more numerous audience, not in New York alone but throughout the country, thus displaying to the world the inherent value which our art undoubtedly possesses."
The founders envisioned a nonprofit, cooperative organization, but one firmly supported by the best business principles Greacen, an artist, is credited with having suggested the Galleries' financial structure: Artists who wished to join were required to give a work of art each year for three years as an initiation fee, after which they became life members. Non-artists (referred to as "lay members") agreed to give a sum of money (initially $600, the equivalent of $7,500 in 2008) to purchase one of the donated works, but available only after the first year. As Clark wrote: "The beauty of this plan of operation is that it accomplishes results in a practical way and is free from the sting of charity because the artists are actually underwriting their own organization." Initial interest was strong, with many artists and lay members joining the new organization. "We had upward of one hundred names on each of the above lists," Clark wrote.
The original board of trustees consisted of Walter Sherman Gifford; the Galleries' architect, William Adams Delano; Robert W. DeForest, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Frank Logan, vice-president of the Art Institute of Chicago; Irving T. Bush, president of the Bush Terminal Company; and artist and businessman Walter Leighton Clark. The association's charter and bylaws were written by Gifford and John G. Agar, president of the National Arts Club. Clark was elected president, DeForest vice-president, and Gifford became secretary and treasurer. Erwin S. Barrie, manager of the art collection of Carson Pirie Scott, was hired as director.
The board sought a location in Manhattan that was central and easily accessible. Through the support of Alfred Holland Smith, president of the New York Central Railroad, the top of the Grand Central Terminal was made available. The official street address was 15 Vanderbilt Avenue. The Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association signed a 10-year lease, and together with the railroad company, invested more than $100,000 in preparations. The Galleries extended over most of the terminal's sixth floor, 14,000 square feet (1,300 m2), and offered eight main exhibition rooms, a foyer gallery, and a reception area. A total of 20 display rooms were to be created for what was intended to be "the largest sales gallery of art in the world." The architect was Delano, best known for designing Yale Divinity School's Sterling Quadrangle.
The Grand Central Art Galleries officially opened on March 23, 1923. The event featured paintings by Sargent, Charles W. Hawthorne, Cecilia Beaux, Wayman Adams, and Ernest Ipsen. Sculptors included Daniel Chester French, Herbert Adams, Robert Aitken, Gutzon Borglum, and Frederic MacMonnies, who showed a fountain, The Boy and the Fish. The gala event attracted 5,000 people and received a positive review from The New York Times:
"The initial exhibition, seen for its own sake, is a beauty. Every artist seems to have realized that it is an occasion for putting his best work forward, and his best work could not be more favorably shown to the public. Even the galleries of the newest museums are not quite so favorable."
In keeping with the founders' conception of the Galleries as a commercial as well as artistic organization, the majority of the works on display were for sale. Prices ranged from $100 to $10,000, the most expensive one being by Hawthorne; Sargent's contribution was valued at $5,000. By 1934 Clark estimated that sales were $500,000 to $600,000 a year. Total sales up to that year were approximately $4,000,000. Two-thirds of proceeds on commercial sales were distributed to artists.
The Grand Central Art Galleries were founded on the idea of a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship between artists and those interested in art. Artist members donated one work a year for three years as their initiation fee; lay members gave a yearly sum in return for a work of art after the first year's membership. Works donated by the artists were distributed to the lay members at an annual drawing. A yearly catalog indicated the works to be distributed at a drawing and reception at the gallery.
As described in the 1934 catalog, the procedure was as follows:
"[The drawing] will be accomplished by placing the name of each lay member on a slip of paper in a sealed jar which will be shaken thoroughly. Then before the entire audience the seal will be broken and a child will draw the names, one at a time, and they will be read aloud and entered on a list. The name first drawn will have first choice of all the contributed works of art. The second name drawn will have a free choice after number one has made his selection and the third name will then have the privilege of making his choice from all the works that remain, and so on until the last name."
Available works were played on display prior to the drawing, and lay members were requested to "make a list of thirty choices, arranging same in the order of his preference." This pre-selection would allow the awarded paintings to be announced the evening of the drawing. Because of the wide range of works being offered, the drawing — and in particular, an early selection — was important.
A year after the Galleries opened the Painters and Sculptors Gallery Association established the Grand Central School of Art, which occupied 7,000 square feet (650 m2) on the seventh floor of the east wing of the Grand Central Terminal. The school was directed by John Singer Sargent and Daniel Chester French; its first year teachers included painters Edmund Greacen, Wayman Adams, Jonas Lie, George Elmer Browne, Nicolai Fechin, and Sigurd Skou; sculptor Chester Beach; illustrator Dean Cornwell; costume designer Helen Dryden; George Pearse Ennis, who worked in stained glass and watercolors; and muralist Ezra Winter.
The school enrolled more than 400 students its first year; this soon grew to 900, making it one of the largest art programs in New York City. In 1925 Edmund Greacen engaged Arshile Gorky as an instructor, one of the school's most prominent teachers; he remained with the school until 1931. It was in operation for almost 20 years, including a summer program in Maine, closing in 1944.
Throughout its history the Grand Central Art Galleries regularly held exhibitions large and small. Whether events were free or admission was charged, they helped to publicize the Galleries as well as advance the cause of the arts they championed.
What a week it has been at the Grand Central Galleries, with thirty-three "radicals" from the Downtown Gallery occupying "an entire city block," and Grand Central attachés going about, as it were, brightly on tiptoe, tacitly exclaiming, "We feel actually devilish to be doing a thing like this!" and Mr. Clark, the president, all smiles, observing quite openly: "Why it's a success, it's a success!" and Holger Cahill delivering an eleventh hour informal lecture to salespeople on "how to sell modern art," and nearly a dozen pictures sold on the opening day along, and important American collectors on hand who had probably never until that moment stepped foot in the premises, and for Monday's reception the gallery's best china brought out, and tea poured in such quantities as are seldom exigent, and heaped plates of the most special kinds of cake, and everybody trying, generally in vain, to catch sight of the art over a Caliban sea of shoulders.
"Things are at last beginning to be done in a really big way here," Jewell wrote later in the review of "33 Moderns," which was scheduled to run for three weeks at the Galleries.
The Galleries also organized traveling shows in "all major American cities" to promote and sell the work of its artist-members. While this practice declined in the late 1940s as the United States railroad system was progressively dismantled and shipping costs increased, it continued until at least the 1980s. During the steamship era the Galleries also placed works in transatlantic liners and ships passing through the Panama Canal. "As someone has remarked, these are exhibitions which people attend without meaning to," Clark wrote in 1934. Among other locations, a permanent display of work was maintained in the Boca Raton Hotel.
Having worked tirelessly to promote American art at home the 1920s, in 1930 Walter Leighton Clark and the Grand Central Art Galleries spearheaded the creation of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Up until then there was no place at the Biennale dedicated to American art, and Clark felt that it was crucial to establishing the credentials of the nation's artists abroad. The pavilion's architects were William Adams Delano, who also designed the Grand Central Art Galleries, and Chester Holmes Aldrich. The purchase of the land, design, and construction was paid for by the Galleries and personally supervised by Clark. As he wrote in the 1934 catalog:
"Pursuing our purpose of putting American art prominently before the world, the directors a few years ago appropriated the sum of $25,000 for the erection of an exhibition building in Venice on the grounds of the International Biennial. Messrs. Delano and Aldrich generously donated the plans for this building which is constructed of Istrian marble and pink brick and more than holds its own with the twenty-five other buildings in the Park owned by the various European governments."
The pavilion, owned and operated by the Galleries, opened on May 4, 1930. Approximately 90 paintings and 12 sculptures were selected by Clark to be shown for the opening exhibition. Artists featured included Max Boehm, Hector Caser, Lillian Westcott Hale, Edward Hopper, Abraham Poole, Julius Rolshoven, Joseph Pollett, Eugene Savage, Elmer Shofeld, Ofelia Keelan, and African-American artist Henry Tanner. U.S. Ambassador John W. Garrett opened the show together with the Duke of Bergamo.
The Grand Central Galleries did not participate in the Biennale in 1936 in a protest to the rise of fascism in Italy. In 1948, after the war's end, the Galleries' sent 79 paintings to Venice. It ran the pavilion until the 1950s, inviting organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art to present exhibitions.
The Galleries had built the pavilion with the hope that, like the other buildings at the Venice Biennale, it would eventually be run by nation whose art it showed. Support from the U.S. government was not forthcoming, however, and in 1954 the Galleries sold the pavilion to the Museum of Modern Art. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s shows were organized by the Modern, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Modern withdrew from the Biennale in 1964, and the United States Information Agency ran the Pavilion until 1983, when it was sold to the Guggenheim Museum courtesy of funds provided by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. In 2009 the Guggenheim sold the Pavilion to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In 1933 the Grand Central Art Galleries opened a second location at Fifth Avenue and on 51st Street in the former building of the Union Club of the City of New York. The expansion was made possible by Jeremiah Milbank, owner of the property at the time. As Clark wrote:
"These beautiful new Galleries with their many windows on Fifth Avenue and on 51st Street, have presented during the past eight months an ever-changing panorama of American Art which has been viewed by over one hundred thousand people daily. Quite a number of paintings and bronzes have been purchased by new clients."
The former Union Club building was used for six years, until 1939, when Galleries' "uptown division" moved to the second floor of the Gotham Hotel on 5th Avenue. Eighty artists' works were shown at the new location's December 9 opening, including those by Eugene Higgins, Wayman Adams, John Johansen, Albert Sterner, Sidney Dickenson, Carl Rungius, Randall Davey, John Follinsbee, Robert Brackman, Robert Philipp, and Leopold Seyffert.
To show modern art, in 1947 the Grand Central Art Galleries established Grand Central Moderns. Founded by Erwin S. Barrie, it was directed from 1951 through 1965 by Colette Roberts. After the gallery "wandered about for several years" it settled at 130 East 56th Street in 1950. Artists represented by Grand Central Moderns included Byron Browne, Lamar Dodd, Jennett Lam, and Louise Nevelson. Grand Central Moderns closed in 1967.
While they were founded during the 1920s boom, the Grand Central Art Galleries were structured so that they could withstand economic downturns. Three funding streams were envisioned: members fees, which in the early years provided the majority of income; sales commissions; and proceeds from ticket sales. Income remaining after expenses safeguarded in a conservatively managed "sinking fund" (reserve) that the founders established. This strategy served the gallery well, but five years into the Depression, the Galleries' management felt the need for extraordinary measures:
"Although the lay membership subscription fee has been $600 annually during the ten years of the existence of the Galleries, it was deemed necessary by the management to reduce this subscription to $350 for 1933 and 1934, and we urgently invite those interested in American art and American artists to become members for this year on this new basis."
Prosperity returned to the Galleries as the Depression's effects lessened: By 1936 their lay membership had returned to 115, more than twice as they'd had in any year since 1929. Time brought new challenges, however: Walter Leighton Clark had died in 1935, and Greacen followed in 1949. With the decline of railway traffic after World War II, the New York Central Railroad sought to maximize the value of the land on which Grand Central Terminal sat. In 1954 developer William Zeckendorf proposed replacing the terminal with an 80-story tower designed by I.M. Pei. While this plan came to nothing, in 1958 the company signed an agreement with developer Erwin S. Wolfson to demolish the colonnaded six-story building at the terminal's north end and build the 59-story Pan Am Building in its place. The decision pushed the Grand Central Art Galleries out of the terminal from which they had taken their name.
Erwin S. Barrie, who had served as director of the since the Galleries' 1922 founding, supervised their relocation in 1958 to the nearby Biltmore Hotel, at 40 Vanderbilt Avenue. The new location, on the hotel's second floor, offered six exhibition rooms, a reserve storage room, and an office. In 1977, after 19 years at the Biltmore, an auction was held of 500 lots of unclaimed artwork donated by members through the years. The works were given a two-day preview and then sold to benefit the artist-membership program. The Galleries remained at the Biltmore for 23 years, until the structure was gutted and converted into an office building. The final show was "Anita Loos and Friends." Describing the end of the Biltmore and the Grand Central Art Galleries' final show there, John Russell of The New York Times wrote:
"Hardly since Samson tore down the great temple at Gaza has a building disappeared as rapidly as the Biltmore Hotel. But people have shown a rare persistence this last day or two in pushing their way upstairs at the entrance on Vanderbilt Avenue to where the Grand Central Galleries has been holding its own."
Barrie retired in 1975, having led the Galleries for more than 50 years, and Gerry Thomas took over temporarily as manager. In 1976 James D. Cox became director, only the second in the Galleries' history. Cox led their second relocation, this time to 24 West 57th Street. There the Galleries had the entire second floor, 9,000 square feet (840 m2), extending from 57th to 56th Streets. The entrance on 57th featured an escalator, while that on 56th was at street level. There Cox worked to adjust the Galleries' approach to fit the times, holding shows such as "La Femme: The Influence of Whistler and Japanese Print Masters on American Art, 1880-1917."
James D. Cox left the Grand Central Art Galleries in December 1989. After his departure they were managed by John Evans, a longtime salesman, until they closed in 1994.
The Galleries' archives as well as those of Edmund Greacen are at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. The archives of the Grand Central Moderns are at Syracuse University and the Smithsonian. The archives of the firm of William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich are held by the Drawings and Archives Department in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University; the university's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library also has a significant collection of Chester Holmes Aldrich's correspondence.
During their operation the Grand Central Art Galleries were often incorrectly referred to by The New York Times and other publications as the "Grand Central Galleries," "Grand Central Gallery," and "Grand Central Art Gallery." Archive searches in the Times will reveal many news items, events, and exhibitions listed under those names. Please note that the "Grand Central Gallery" in Palm Beach, Florida, and the "Grand Central Art Center" in Fullerton, California, have no relationship to the Grand Central Art Galleries, past or present.