High Drama at the National Arts Club

The storied New York institution for the arts the National Arts Club is currently the center of its own drama but this is clearly no Masterpiece Theater. Since it’s founding in 1898, the National Arts Club has been a place to hobnob with New York’s high brow arts and letters set. The club was started by Charles de Kay, an arts critics for The New York Times, with help from patrons and artists alike. The nonprofit club moved to swanky Gramercy Park South adress in 1909, when the board acquired the former home of Gov. Samuel J. Tilden. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower have all joined all joined with W. H. Auden, Mark Twain and Frank McCourt. The club sponsored literary readings, parties and art shows and recognized world-class artists with annual award bashes and gaving grants to emerging talent.

In recent weeks, the dram began with Oliver Aldon James, 63, the club’s flamboyant head since 1985, is being investigated by the state Attorney General and Manhattan District Attorney’s office for a slew of alleged improprieties, including steering tens of thousands of organization dollars to himself.

Around 1983, James became a club member, and ushered a meteoric rise to the presidency in 1985. By 1987, he had the club constitution was amended to make it nearly impossible to change its leadership.James became the club king for life.James threw himself into club work with abandon putting in 60 hours a week. The charming, bow tie-wearing networker is credited with boosting membership at the 113-year-old Gramercy Park club and shedding its image as a stuffy outpost for martini drinking little old ladies. The membership lists Martin Scorcese, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Robert Redford and Uma Thurman along with Lynn Redgrave, Russell Simmons, Wynton Marsalis, Sigourney Weaver and Elaine Stritch. Under James membership expanded from a few hundred to more than 2,000.

Things started to unravel for James during a 1997 forensic audit ordered by club tenants found a “OA James Exchange” account, where thousands of dollars in charges were made to the Gramercy Park Hotel and payouts for the James brothers.Since then a litany of issues have arisen to numerous to mention including fears that board members discovered checks were made to organizations with no official club business and stacks of contributions to the organization also sat uncashed.

Club members have also become anxious about the institution’s multi-million dollar collection of art, which is considered to be one of the best in the city for early 20th-century paintings. Works include those by impressionist William McGregor Paxton, renowned landscape artist Colin Campbell Cooper and painter Charles Webster Hawthorne (who taught Norman Rockwell). At least one painting was damaged and former employees said James also allegedly hijacked a rare 19th-century zinc statue of a nymph from Gramercy Park when he decided it clashed with another one in the park, according to Rev. Thomas F. Pike, a former landmark commissioner.

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