Staying Power: How World War II Transformed the Art Students League of New York

art students league
Renowned anatomist Robert Beverly Hale, author of Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, a text beloved by art students and still in print, delivering a lecture

In February 1943, the Art Students League opened Fifty Years on Fifty-seventh Street, an exhibition of 227 paintings to celebrate the golden anniversary of the American Fine Arts building, its residence since 1892. At the exhibition preview, Stewart Klonis, president of the League’s board of control, delivered some bad news: student enrollment over the past few years declined by over half. Nearly six hundred students had enlisted “in some type of war service,” which left a student body of about four hundred, a number close to school’s size during the 1880s. Income, accordingly, had been reduced by half. The drop was steep and sudden, with an impact more far-reaching for the school than the Great Depression. The Art Students League was on the verge of closure.

The Art Students League’s board had noted the trend in 1941, scaling back expenses outside of the essentials. But to survive they needed to find additional revenue. The board discussed raising an endowment and drew up a list of prospective patrons. Another proposal was to divide the League into three schools: one for commercial art, one for fine art, and another for teacher training, which might appeal to a broader range of prospective students and enroll them for longer periods. But these were speculative and long-term propositions, offering no immediate help. Worse still was the possibility that the enrollment could drop further. An executive order signed by President Roosevelt in December 1942 included sweeping changes to the draft. Paul V. McNutt, chairman of the War Manpower Commission, announced that he would increase compulsory recruitment, from one out of every nine men to one in five men by the end of 1943. “The League is in great danger,” Klonis warned in a New York Times article. Anyone in favor of “individual expression, which is not only the basis of great art but the very foundation of our democratic way of life” should step forward and support the school. The Times agreed, calling the school’s influence “centrifugal” and “too vast and far-reaching to be calculated.” With no easy remedy at hand, Klonis and the board brought the issue to the membership.

While the League’s compliance with the VA’s requirements was an expedient compromise, the measures were never intended as a renouncement of atelier-based instruction.

At an emergency meeting on February 28, 1943, students, members, and invited speakers gathered to ignite activism and discuss ways of making the League solvent. Major figures in the school’s history stepped forward with testimonials. Henry Schnakenberg, an instructor and former board president, pointed out the school’s uniqueness: “The League is a way of life and cannot be dropped temporarily.” He urged that “a token League…be maintained” for the young to return to and rebuild. Former board president John Sloan, who had resigned after a contentious board election in 1932, felt compelled to return to rally the membership: “If students cannot run the League, no one can…. We are going to do something to carry on until after the war is over.” Instructor Harry Sternberg feared what the ASL’s closure might mean to American culture long-term: “If America does not carefully nurture its young cultural roots, there will be a drought after the war that will make our national life arid.” Stewart Klonis announced the creation of an Emergency Fund and urged each person to donate at least ten dollars, with a goal of canvasing the whole League membership to raise twenty thousand dollars. By the end of the night, four thousand dollars was pledged, along with nearly the same dollar value of paintings to sell. It was enough to guarantee a fall opening. Klonis called for grassroots action throughout the spring, urging members to register for refresher courses, to buy supplies from the ASL store, to send in names of former students to replace lost files, and to buy a copy of Marchal Landgren’s history of the school, Years of Art

Staying Power: How World War II Transformed the Art Students League of New York
Deborah Kerr, the Dream Ball Queen of 1954, with Rosina Florio, who would be appointed executive director of the Art Students League years later, in 1980. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Staying Power: How World War II Transformed the Art Students League of New York
A costumed party-goer carried on a litter into the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York

But the real salvation and rebirth of the Art Students League came in the form of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. Signed into law on June 22, 1944 by President Roosevelt, the act offered aid to returning G.I.s: hospitalization and rehabilitation; loans for homes and businesses; and stipends for education. A former G.I. would receive tuition for up to $500 a year plus books and supplies, and a subsistence allowance of $50 a month or $75 with dependents. The ASL was eager to sign a contract with the Veterans Administration (VA) to admit returning soldiers as students, as were other institutions of higher education. The League established a revolving loan fund for G.I. students that allowed them to register before receiving their allotments. They offered career counseling and discounts on supplies in the school store.

“About 7.8 million former G.I.s (a little less than half the cohort of soldiers) received graduate, college, or sub-college level education and training benefits under the G.I. Bill,” according to The G.I Bill: A New Deal for Veterans. Between 1945 and 1946, veteran enrollment in universities and colleges increased from five percent to nearly forty-nine percent of the total student population. At the League, two-thirds of the student body now consisted of former G.I.s. The school’s corps of instructors tripled within five years. To maintain the momentum into the summer months, the League revived its summer program in Woodstock, New York, which had been discontinued in 1922. The rapid influx of students caused overcrowding in especially popular classes. Pressed for space, the Art Students League’s board decided, with some hesitation, to convert the building’s first floor galleries into studios while they searched for additional rental space. An area of over 8,000 square feet with soaring twenty-six foot high ceilings was divided into six studios by banks of lockers, a solution that was inexpensive, practical, and intentionally impermanent. In this way, the Art Students League accommodated what became the largest student enrollment in its history, but at a cost. The building’s open street-level galleries and their half-century of exhibition history came to an end. Converting the exhibition space served the immediate needs of art students, but in the long term it severed a vital link between artists and the viewing public that those galleries were intended to provide. While the board accepted this trade-off, within a few years, they set up a building fund and initiated a feasibility study to add three stories atop the building’s former Vanderbilt Gallery. Restoring these first floor galleries remains an unrealized aspiration.

art students league
Stewart Klonis (1902–1989) served as the Art Students League’s executive director from 1946 to 1980.

As the League’s operations became increasingly complex, the twelve-person board, which was elected annually, sought to ensure stability and full-time oversight of operations over the long haul. They established an executive director position, but with more expansive authority than that of the school’s first directors who had served during the 1880s and 1890s. The natural choice, and only candidate considered, was Stewart Klonis, who had been board president since 1937. He had proven himself shrewd and resourceful in a time of crisis, guiding the board to purchase AFAS stock from the Architectural League and the National Academy of Design that gave the Art Students League complete control of the building and raising funds to keep the school afloat. Klonis signed a three-year contract and became executive director on February 1, 1946.

The influx of students invigorated the Art Students League and lent its board renewed purpose, with more than a dozen new committees of volunteers forming to oversee exhibitions, a monthly newsletter, and the annual raucous Dream Balls. The League celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a project facilitated by Robert Beverly Hale, who, rather unusually, served as a curator of contemporary American art at the Met while an instructor of anatomy at the League.

art students league
Will Barnet demonstrating on a student’s canvas

The League’s admission of veterans was not without challenge. In July 1951, the Veterans Administration began to scrutinize G.I.s’ transcripts, many of which listed the same course title month after month. With atelier-based instruction at the League, a student might study with a single instructor for several months or even years, hence the repetition of the same course title. The VA, accustomed to the sequential curricula of universities, demanded the League prove the former G.I.s were making a “normal progression” through a specific program of study if they were to continue receiving payments under the G.I. Bill. The G.I.s were still vital to the League’s prosperity, if not its survival. So, in a move contrary to its creed of no set curricula, the school’s board formulated two four-year programs of study: one in commercial arts, the other in fine arts. A description of these “prescribed courses of study” appeared in the school’s catalogue the following year. The board also made certain that GIs could continue the program seamlessly during the summer session at the ASL’s recently-revived Woodstock colony.

While the League’s compliance with the VA’s requirements was an expedient compromise, the measures were never intended as a renouncement of atelier-based instruction. Nor did it change the school’s general policies of open monthly enrollment without admission requirements, grades, degrees, or time limits. “The League principle of placing the student on his own,” according to the 1952–53 catalogue, “is the forerunner of progressive ideas in American education. The only purpose of a student at the League is to study and learn—in a stimulating atmosphere of intense application.” That self-discipline, self-direction, and intrinsic intellectual curiosity remain the sine qua non of an Art Students League education.

But for educators elsewhere, the G.I. Bill created the circumstances that provoked searching questions about where and how best to educate artists. Should an artist be required to study the humanities? Could a university program ever offer the same rigor in technique and craft that an independent art school offers? Were BFAs or MFAs meaningful outside of providing a teaching credential? Can creativity be taught? What body of knowledge should an aspiring artist master? All vital questions—but none thwarted the clear post-war trend in art education. As art historian Howard Singerman has observed: “The G.I. Bill and its provisions pushed independent art schools into academic admission requirements, humanities courses, core requirements, and degrees.” Many chose the path to permanent accreditation; Stewart Klonis remained part of a vocal and stalwart minority who resisted. The legacy of the G.I. Bill of Rights on the Art Students League’s history is significant not only in terms of the thousands of former G.I.s who attended the school and went on to shape the art scene in postwar America. It is also notable for the way it compelled the Art Students League to reframe its educational philosophy for the sake of a few Washington bureaucrats who questioned it, and perhaps more importantly, in the debates over credentialing the artist that continued unresolved for the remainder of the twentieth century and up through present day. The Art Students League has maintained that viable countercurrent in American art education.

On the Front Lines: Military Veterans at the Art Students League of New York continues through July 29, 2015 in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery.

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