A VISION FOR THE FUTURE - WHILE HONORING THE PAST
"What Happened to My League?"
By Peter Homitzky
Following is an intimate account of the descent of The Art Students League of New York from a world-class art school to a decaying institution, with a declining level of students, and a perilous future, in just a few short years. It was written by Peter Homitzky, a former instructor and a long-time League insider. Peter taught at the League over 30 years. He has been at the League for 55 years, in the 60s as a student, returning as a substitute for Leatrice Rose in the early eighties, and in 1985 being named as an instructor. He only became a League member during Joanne Kuebler's tenure because he wanted to express his concerns to the membership and there was no way to do it without being a member. Up until that time, Peter had nothing to protest. He is a highly regarded and widely exhibited landscape painter. In a review of ''Peter Homitzky: The New Jersey Years, 1972-2002,'' The New York Times described Peter as a "painter who can be classified as a realist, but with him, this term does not mean absolute fidelity to the scene he depicts. He relies on memory and emotion, and also the history of American landscape." ASL 2025 urges you to read his illuminating personal account carefully, and vote your conscience on December 2.
"Somethin' Happenin' here, What it is ain't exactly clear..."
Words from an old rock song that pretty much describe the League over the last few years.
For me, the League has always been a constant. You knew what it was, a unique institution that allowed anyone interested in making art, whether recreationally or as a vocation, to be in the same studio with a distinguished instructor whose viewpoint and experience were an established fact within the arts community.
Stewart Klonis, the League's director, made it a point of pride to get to know promising students and introduce them to each other and to the greater art world. This was my experience as a student in the sixties. Stewart knew that in order to keep the school affordable for the talented minority, the classes had to accommodate as many people as possible. It was messy, but it worked. It worked because Stewart knew the difference. Rosina Florio, his successor, sort of knew, or at least knew who to ask for guidance. Our current director, not so much.
How did we get from there to here?
When Rosina Florio passed away, the then-BOC president, a very ambitious but not very talented painter of dining room florals for the lipstick on the teeth crowd, moved into her chair and grew to like it. He wanted to be named acting director by the BOC, and seriously interfered with the search for a new director. When his term as president was over, and the board balked at his demands, he quit the BOC. At this time, Joe Liipfert, the new president, shared with me some of the applicants. There were some very impressive people on that list, some of the best and most-imaginative people in this country and from abroad.
The BOC in its wisdom chose the quintessential academic, a woman whose experience at a Midwestern state art department and a small, inconsequential regional museum left her totally unprepared for what to her seemed to be chaotic, and an insult to her socially striving sensibility. Everything I think of as the League's singular strengths she saw as problems to be fixed.
After several conversations with her, I came to believe that her solution to everything was to make the League more mainstream. To her this meant accreditation. I thought that this was a terrible idea, especially in view of the happy news that, starting in the late nineties, academic art departments were shrinking, or being phased out entirely. Since then, this trend has only grown - art departments are shutting down at the same rate as they spread, like mushrooms, in the sixties and seventies. I say happy news because I have taught at several art departments, both public and private, and have come to the conclusion that art can't be matriculated. It's an applied craft, and not an academic discipline.
For over 50 years, the academics have tried to make fine art a science, and when they failed, they turned to the only thing left, sociology, which wasn't even a word in 1950.
In any case, after a couple of years into this directorship, I spoke to BOC members and concluded that the BOC would not admit its error, and decided to voice my concerns at the next members' meeting. When I did, I found that a number of members and instructors had already formed a group over the same concerns that I had. The meeting turned acrimonious and ugly, and the majority of the BOC quit and walked out.
A slate was formed to replace the BOC, led by the aforementioned flower painter. The slate won the election and he the presidency. He never lost his fantasy of being the director, an ambition shared by no one but himself. He was, however, challenged by a faculty member and a former BOC doodler. They wouldn't start a search for a new director and named the League's bookkeeper in an acting capacity. The three candidates, each with their supporters, started their mud-wrestling extravaganza. I got disgusted with them all and decided that I was much happier before I got involved. I went back to teaching my classes.
Over the next few years, I noticed that I was getting fewer talented and ambitious students. I've always had between eight to 12 young people in my class that I felt could and should be part of the next generation of artists. I mentioned this to other instructors whom I respected. They saw the same decline of talent in their own classes.
The overall number of students remained constant, but the level dropped. Why was this happening? Here is my take on that. A fish rots from the head. Joseph Rossi became the next BOC president, and the bookkeeper, without any qualifications in administration or fine arts, was named permanent director, who then hired Mr. Rossi as deputy director, a new position. Now we have two people, actually four, as they both have full-time assistants, doing the same job as Rosina Florio had done before this mess started.
That's only the beginning.
Another member of the group that formed around the new director introduced Sal Barbieri, a real estate facilitator with close ties to developers, who after three months of classes, which maybe he attended, was nominated for membership, and within six months was nominated to the board, then elected board president. He won with no real opposition. A bully by nature, he easily intimidated and won dominance over the BOC, which by this time was made up entirely of hobbyists, and the bookkeeper/director. He then proceeded to remake the BOC after his own image, hiring and firing members like they were help, and turning the bookkeeper/director into his personal lap dog.
Meanwhile, the office is now divided into cubicles and staffed by numbers that would make an average DMV blush. The cost of the support staff is more than double the cost of the entire faculty.
That is obscene. As "Il Duccino" preoccupies himself with air rights and cantilevers, the bookkeeper/director was learning how to be directorial. He took the helm of Linea, the League's quarterly publication, and did the next three cover articles on three, in his eyes, distinguished alumni.
They were Peter Max, Tom Otterness, and Paul Jenkins. The interviews were on the level of a high school newspaper, and show the world that America's signature art school is led by a director with the sophistication and taste of a New Jersey dentist. In any case, Linea became Lines of the League, a self congratulatory sales brochure that aspires to the intellectual pinnacle of American Artist magazine. "Il Duccino" and his BOC of course are so involved with lofty real estate adventures that they have left the selection of new instructors solely to the bookkeeper/director.
And that's the problem. As my generation passes or retires, we are replaced by mimics and "how-to" practitioners beloved by amateur suburban art associations. He's hiring his peers -- his peers, not mine, and not of the artists they replace. It's tragic that an institution that has produced more artists than all the academic programs combined now looks like the Greenwich Village art show.
That is the reason that the talented and ambitious young artists are disappearing from the League. I tried to tell this to the bookkeeper/director. His reply was that they were leaving the league because we don't offer academic credentials. That's nonsense, every artist that I've ever known knows that people become artists in spite of academia, not because of it.
He also said that these students will be replaced by foreign students that often are more advanced and sophisticated than their home-grown counterparts. It's fatuous to think that these foreign students are unaware of all these issues. They come to the League because its an easier way to spend a few years in New York City and avoid those boring humanities classes required by academic programs. They are here to have fun and make some art. They are aware of everything.
Meanwhile, I have very recently discovered that the cantilever sale included the merging of the lots. This is the one thing that people asked about, and were told "absolutely not." Now they're saying that it's the only legal thing that could have been done. It isn't, there are other ways that it could have been done, but they would have been in the League's interest - and not Extell's. But Sal knows that.
It is for these reasons that I strongly support Marne Rizika and the entire 2025 slate - if it's not too late already to reverse this course, and return the League to its core mission of identifying and nurturing the next generation of artists. And if it is too late, I'd like someone with the League's interests at heart to negotiate its future - not Sal Barbieri, nor his craven bookkeeper/director.
I would have been happily retired now if it hadn't been for the disgusting way that this administration has treated Gary Lawrence Sussman, a committed and effective instructor of many years. There are many things that Gary and I disagree on, and I can see how an administration can decide that he was taking the Vytlacil campus into something that it didn't want. But there are honorable ways to do that. Sal instead chose the gutter. And his flunky bookkeeper/director knew that the charges, by two employees, one of them after Gary's job, were garbage, and said nothing.
The kangaroo court at Sal's oil slick of a lawyers office was one of the most disgraceful performances that I've ever seen. These characters debase everything they touch. They've taken the Art Students League and turned it into "The Art Administrators League." The one-year delay in the vote on the changes to the constitution is good news only if the by-laws are delayed as well. If the proposed by-laws are changed now, in the vote at the April meeting, they will become effective immediately and the constitutional vote will be meaningless. As will be your membership. It's your league, reclaim it, vote ASL 2025.