On December 4, 1892, the doors opened to the American Fine Arts Society (AFAS) building, venerable 57th Street home of the Art Students League for 125 years and a New York City landmark. Financing the construction of the building is the remarkable story of a creative alliance of artists and patrons, spearheaded by Howard Russell Butler, an indefatigable young lawyer-turned artist. Butler had been “gripped” by the idea of obtaining exhibition space for the “revolutionists,” the younger artists returning from the ateliers of Europe only to be shunned by the academy.
As a member of the American Society of Artists and having studied at the League, Butler was convinced that the “modern art movement…. would come into greater prominence and favour with the public if these younger organizations were united in cooperation, with a permanent domicile of their own.” Using his legal expertise, he swiftly drew up a “Plan and Agreement.” The Society of American Artists, Art Students League, and the Architectural League of New York would retain their independence, while a separate entity—the American Fine Arts Society—was incorporated in June of 1889 to erect and manage the proposed building. The colleague organizations committed to leasing studio, of ce, and exhibition space to cover annual operating expenses. Now it fell to Butler to secure capital for the construction.
The certificate of incorporation of the AFAS had established a capital stock of $50,000, with each organization entitled to a quota of $16,600, to be held in their respective treasuries. Butler prophesied that “this union of younger organizations would awaken an interest and enthusiasm on the part of the public, which could easily be converted into money.” The members of the cooperating societies subscribed for stock on the installment plan, most of them taking one share that they would eventually transfer to their affiliated organization.
Substantial capital investment was still required and, in his quest, Butler would use his social connections to approach some of New York City’s leading Gilded Age philanthropists. According to League archivist Stephanie Cassidy, he was able to channel the passion many eminent New York collectors felt for their art objects to a related concern for the welfare of contemporary American artists. This fundraising strategy was sincere and ultimately proved successful.
Henry G. Marquand, Jr., then President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, advanced the Art Students League $5,000 for the purchase of stock. Strolling on Fifth Avenue one day, Butler seized on a chance encounter with George Washington Vanderbilt II, a passionate art collector and member of the prominent Vanderbilt family that had amassed a fortune in steamboats, railroads and other business ventures. After his persuasive entreaty, Vanderbilt proclaimed on the spot, “I will be one of eight [patrons] to give $5,000.”
Butler launched a whirlwind of a campaign, writing letters and calling on prospective donors with artists James Carroll Beckwith and Eastman Johnson at his side. Over the course of months, seven additional patrons joined the campaign including steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, Henry O. Havemeyer (founder of the American Sugar Refining Co.) and his cousin William F. Havemeyer, Jr., railroad baron C. P. Huntington, banker Darius O. Mills, Charles L. Tiffany (founder of Tiffany & Co.), and Cornelius Vanderbilt II (George’s brother).
Butler’s intention from the outset was to keep control of the building in the hands of artists so they would be free to practice their art without restrictions. He wisely invited Marquand, a man of impeccable reputation, to chair the Gift Fund he had organized to manage capital for the project. With his father’s counsel and in a stroke of brilliance, Butler persuaded the founding patrons to deed the AFAS to the artists after twenty-one years. If the artists could keep the building a oat until 1912, ownership of the property would belong solely “to the profession.” This remains true today.
Soon after Butler convinced Vanderbilt to purchase a portion of the building site on 58th Street and to erect a gallery which the society would be able to rent for exhibitions. In late December 1892, Vanderbilt unexpectedly donated $100,000 to the society for the purchase of his gallery and land, a gift without strings that met with Butler’s shock and delight. Of Vanderbilt’s generosity, Butler declared: “No gift ever did so much for the art of this community.”
A few days after Vanderbilt made his gift, a great dinner was held in the gallery for about 400 guests from the art world. The Art Students League plans to mark the 125th anniversary of its home with a great celebration in its studios and galleries next March. We welcome everyone in our legendary community to come together to pay tribute to all those who made the AFAS possible—with gifts large and small—and to contribute to the future of the extraordinary school that has become synonymous with our landmark home.