The History of the
American Society of Contemporary Artists
by Frank Mann and Charles Keller
In 1917, forty-four Brooklyn men and women artists, including a number of outstanding individuals in the art world, founded and incorporated the Brooklyn Society of Artists under the laws of New York State. These charter members were committed to creating an exhibiting organization dedicated to the broadening of opportunity for artists to display their work. Artistic freedom and the importance of art in life were their themes.
Although membership in the Brooklyn Society of Artists was limited to artists living or working in Brooklyn, the Society’s first exhibition was held at Brooklyn’s Pouch Gallery in 1918 and later in various venues such as Abraham and Straus, as well as exhibitions at Pratt Institute, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and other cultural centers in Brooklyn. In 1919, two years after its inception, the Society’s constitution was amended to extend membership to artists living outside of Brooklyn. Much later, in 1963, the Brooklyn Society of Artists voted to change its name to the American Society of Contemporary Artists (ASCA). As the Brooklyn Society it had exhibited at Pratt Institute from 1927 to 1933, and a list of titles of artwork from those exhibitions reflect a variety of artistic styles including the gravitas of the social upheaval of that period.
By 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression and the beginning of the WPA Art Projects, the Society began to organize exhibitions at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum, and for many years, participated in a Biennial Exhibition of prominent Brooklyn artists.
From a historical point of view, it was a moment of ferment and great artistic fertility. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, America was undergoing a period of experimentation and absorbing new cultural influences, as the nation did not yet have a distinctly American Art. A young country of many nationalities, including native ones, struggled to find its own cultural statement. Comprised of any influences, artists tried to find that distinctive voice in major exhibitions, including the 1913 Armory Show, which introduced new forms fostered by the Twentieth Century Industrial Age. This development spawned the formation of new artistic organizations and opened the eyes of any Americans to the significance of a developing American concept in art.
The advent of the American Federation of Arts in 1909 initiated a period of expansion that circulated art exhibitions to all regions of the country, thereby broadening the audience for contemporary American art. The “Ashcan” School, initiated by John Sloan and Robert Henri, became an important part of the American scene of that period. They made their impact felt and broadly distinguished themselves from other groups by social interests and a popular culture. This period also spawned the much-heralded Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910. Spearheaded by Rockwell Kent and George Bellows, their anti-academic point of view gave impetus to art produced in America as a popular rather than elitist art form. Theirs was an important influence for the advancement of early Twentieth Century art as an expanded exhibition forum.
Only three years later, the event of major significance to the Modern Art movement in America was the aforementioned International Exhibition of Modern Art, held first in New York at the Armory of the 69th Regiment in 1913. This exhibition was the principal force which introduced ‘modern’ – post-impressionist, German expressionist, early abstract, and surrealist art to the United States, and came to be known as the “Armory Show of 1913.” It included prominent American Artists: Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam Man Ray, and Albert Pinkham Ryder among others. The exhibition grew by reputation to be of such magnitude that it quickly became recognized as compatible with the Modern Industrial Age.
While the exhibition was a sensation with controversy, a remarkable achievement, yet savagely attached by conservative observers and critics alike, the full impact was not to be absorbed for another thirty years. Almost immediately there was evidence of a change in American Art and in collecting. Despite the fact that the great modern museums did not exist at that time a new spirit of openness was pervasive, and new galleries began to appear. Although international relations were soon to be interrupted by World War I, some Americans continued to go to Europe for study, and some American Museums began to collect modern French masters.
At the beginning of the New Century a number of timely and significant events fostered the birth of the Brooklyn Society of Artists. This confluence of world events – the drive to organize, the impact of the Armory Show, and the devastation of World War I, all ushered in a new spirit that was both refreshing as well as nationalistic, and that encouraged a growing sense of American identity.
It is possible that a high point of activity in the history of the Brooklyn Society of Artists occurred in the decade following World War II and included the participation of many prominent artists such as William Zorach, Gregorio Prestopino, Minna Citron, Jacob Lawrence, Chaim Gross, and Adolph Gottlieb, who joined its ranks and served on its frequent juries. In the early 1950’s, the Society exhibited for the first time outside of the borough of Brooklyn. In 1951, the 34th Annual Exhibition was held at the once heralded Riverside Museum in Manhattan. Since the exhibition of art had been the main purpose of its existence, members welcomed access to such large and varied spaces as the Hotel New Yorker, the National Arts Club, Long Island University, and both the Donnell and Hudson Park Public Libraries. Also, it is important to note that many organizations and art venues were closed to women and artists of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. According to member artist David Margolis, some sought and found in the American Society of Contemporary Artists an organization without bias.
In 1953, ‘patron’ membership of the Brooklyn Society greatly increased and also contained within its ranks associates and members in an advisory capacity. They were invited to al events, and were gifted with artwork for their sustained contributions of support.
At one point in the 1960’s, the organization had over sixty patron members. Their additional financial support enabled the expansion of activities, and lectures on art by notable individuals were included in the cultural program. Patrons included distinguished individuals such as H.V. Kaltenborn, Raymond Ingersoll, and Harrison Cady. In 1954, the society held its first traveling exhibitions, and the first scholarships were awarded, while television demonstrations of graphic techniques by members of the Society were also introduced. As a result of these and other popular activities, the Federal government in 1955 recognized the Society as a cultural non-profit organization, and granted it tax-exempt status. The Society also became a member of the United States Committee f the International Association of Art. Also in 1963, the organization held its 46th Annual Exhibition at the Lever House galleries, where it is said to have attracted thousands of viewers. (There is still continuity between the Brooklyn Society of Artists and ASCA today. Dorothy Koppelman and David Margolis, for example, are current members of ASCA who were also members of the Brooklyn Society. Jeremy Comins, one of the younger and more active members of ASCA, is the son of Harry L. Comins, one of the early members of the Brooklyn Society of Artists).
Today, the American Society of Contemporary Artists boasts close to one hundred active members, and this year celebrated its 89th anniversary of bringing new art to public view. Though we face a historic crisis of global proportions as we did in the early days of our founding, the American Society of Contemporary Artists continues to assert the need and satisfaction of creating art as an affirmation of life. Initiated in 2001, the ASCA newsletter is published under the steady hand of Former President Joseph V. Lubrano, and contributes to the energy and vitality of the organization. We continue to provide opportunity to artists of merit, selected by peer review panel, to display their works to the public. It is the dedication of its volunteer officers and of its devoted members and friends that has enabled the American Society of Contemporary Artists to contribute to the dynamic world of American art.
For additional information please contact Harriet FeBland at firstname.lastname@example.org
The American Society of Contemporary Artists (ASCA) is a dues-supported association of approximately 100 professional artists whose goal is to advance painting, graphics, and sculpture. This objective is achieved in works that range from traditional representation to the completely non-figurative. ASCA members have exhibited in group and solo shows in the United States and abroad, gaining considerable distinction and recognition.
ASCA holds annual exhibitions in SoHo as well as occasional shows elsewhere. Juries consisting of non-member artists award prizes to particular works in recognition of their excellence. The success of the exhibitions depends on the consistently high quality of the art as well as on each member’s active participation and hosting of each show. ASCA also published a Newsletter that provides information about the Society’s activities and upcoming events.
Twice a year (March and November) the ASCA Admissions Jury reviews new applicants who have applied for membership. Applicants are judged primarily by their artistic ability. Artists who live in New York City and vicinity are also expected to carry out various tasks necessary for the successful functioning of the Society. Therefore, their willingness to participate in the organizational activities of the Society will be an important factor in the admissions process.
For those of you who reside in New York City and vicinity, you can volunteer for any of the committees listed on the ASCA Committees form. Check off all the committees that interest you, but you will be asked to serve on only one or two of them. In some cases, these committees are active only once or twice a year. Other requests for help may be made from time to time.
All members are required to pay annual dues. The works in all ASCA shows are by dues-paying members only. For all new applicants the fees and dues are as follows: $25 initiation Fee and $75 Annual Membership dues. If you exhibit in ASCA’s Annual Show in SoHo, your Exhibition Fee is $75 prepaid.
Once accepted as a member of ASCA for two years, you will be eligible for permanent membership status, subject to approval by ASCA’s Board of Directors. More detailed information on payment dates and procedures will be distributed to new members after the selection process is completed.
Please fill out form and positions sheet, include slides and send to :
Erin Karp, Chairperson
New Membership Committee
An 85th anniversary book (72 pages, 2003) that contains a lively account of
the activities and history of the organization by authors Frank Mann and Charles
Keller, including 63 color reproductions of the work of current members, is
now just $25.00
(add $3.00 for shipping and handling, or $5.00 for international).
Please do not forget to include your entire mailing address as well as zip code. Send your check or money order made out to A.S.C.A.. along with your request to :
Harriet FeBland, 245 E. 63rd. St. #1803 NY NY 10021 phone (212) 759 2215