Nourishing Art on the East Side

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:06

The National Academy teaches more than 1,000 students in a lavish setting

Walking into the stately Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street that houses the National Academy Museum and School, one would never suspect that within its handsome walls thrives a dynamic art environment where more than 1,000 students attend classes, exhibit their work and have access, as does the public, to first-class exhibitions and a permanent collection of over 7,000 works.

Established in 1825 by a group of artists and architects including Thomas Cole, Rembrandt Peale, Samuel F. B. Morse and Asher B. Durand, it is modeled after the Royal Academy in London, and has a mission to "promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." Located on Fifth Avenue since 1939 when Archer Milton Huntington and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, donated their house to the institution, it prides itself on being both a distinguished museum and supporting an intimate and democratic community of artists and art lovers.

No one could better embody the National Academy's spirit than the director of the school, Venice-born Maurizio Pellegrin, a respected artist, scholar, author, teacher and, above all, advocate for art, who has been on the faculties of Columbia University, NYU and the Rhode Island School of Design. Talking to him in a small office on an upper floor of the mansion, above the elegant galleries, he dives into conversation between meetings and teaching.

In only two and a half years on the job, he has appreciably raised the level of student work and helped make the institution far more progressive. Dressed in an orange suit adorned with a pink scarf, intense and wiry, he says, "I love it here because there's a chance to be flexible. We attract people from different generations and jobs and provide a place for exchange. Art is humanitarian. We explore together; we debate. There's positive energy here. We want to be a laboratory, not a place where you pay a ticket and then leave."

One only has to look at the list of exhibits and programs to see what he is talking about. In recent months 19th century Swedish artist Anders Zorn, late 19th and early 20th century muralist Edwin Blashfield, and contemporary painter Philip Pearlstein have all been exhibited, while at the same time lectures, films, concerts and storytelling and music for families have taken place. In the recent show, "Creative Mischief," student artists exhibit in the same galleries as the established artists. The Annual 2014 Exhibition, "Redefining Tradition," from June 11-September 14, shows works by the Museum's academicians.

A seasoned artist, Nancy Shapiro, only began studying at the school two years ago. " "Maurizio is extremely inspiring. I do sculpture. He has incredible insight and looks upon each student as an individual. Sometimes he sees so deeply, it makes my head spin. He moves me to another place."

Years in universities have made Pellegin leery of students' anxiety about careers. "It can begin to dominate everything they do," he says. "We teach them about business here but first they have to enjoy their creativity and make a real commitment to art and the craft of art making. You have to know art in a deep way not just a conceptual way. You'll understand more about a painting if you know how to prepare a canvas; you'll know more about a work of art if you know it was painted on mahogany or poplar. I believe to be an artist you have to care about architecture, fashion, cinema, photography, dance and video. I'm available 24 hours to my students. We're like a family."

The sense of community today is not that far removed from that of the original founders, who held the first session of the National Academy School on November 15, 1826, in the Old Alms House at City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, with two academicians and 20 students sketching by candlelight.

Monika Camillucci, who has studied there for 25 years and exhibits in New York galleries, says, "It is my home away from home. It's my other family. I have taken every class there from painting to sculpture to printmaking, everything except video, and who knows, maybe I'll take video next."