Volume 75, Number 37 | February 1 - 7, 2006

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Kathleen Arffmann brings her expertise from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Salmagundi Art Club, founded just one year after the uptown museum.

New directions for historic art club

By Nicole Davis

Eight hundred miles south of New York, in the town of Augusta, Georgia, there is a traveling exhibition of art from the Salmagundi Club—the same Salmagundi Club that sits at 47 Fifth Avenue in a landmark brownstone on Greenwich Village’s gold coast. Started in 1871 by a group of artists who hung out every Saturday night to sketch and eat Salmagundi stew—the strange word means potpurri, which the founders chose to describe its amalgam of painters, sculptors, and designers—the club is probably better appreciated around the country than it is in New York City, though that is on the verge of changing.

Take for instance the recent interest among collectors in American Tonalist paintings, a style of art practiced by the original Salmagundi members. Or the fact that the 650-strong membership, down from its one-time high of 1,000, has risen 10% in the past two years. But the biggest change at this historic Downtown arts club is the new director at its helm. On a recent Monday afternoon, while a movie crew for the upcoming Robert De Niro film about the founding of the CIA was shooting upstairs, Kathleen Arffmann sat in the Salmagundi’s elegant parlor and gave a brief synopsis of its rise and fall from fame.

“At the turn of the [twentieth] century it had such important artists here, people were breaking down the door in order to be members,” said Arffmann. “So you didn’t have to tell Louis Comfort Tiffany what the Salmagundi was... But now, since the 1950s when the New York School came in and a different phase of American art came in, the name Salmagundi Club no longer has any meaning. That is part of my mission—to put the art back into the club.”

She’s speaking figuratively, of course, because inside this palatial, Georgian-style home are the works of over 3,000 painters and sculptors, past and present. The 153-year-old brownstone also houses the nation’s largest collection of American palettes, the semi-circular boards that artists use to mix paint. A hundred hand-painted beer steins early members created for their own private happy hour are on view in the library and the restaurant downstairs, where a Culinary Institute-trained chef serves Steak Diane and Ahi Tuna for members every weeknight, not far from the collection of original Bill Baird puppets (a predecessor of Jim Henson) and the 100-year-old billiards tables. Other original details, like the coal-burning fireplace in the boardroom, complete the historic aura that makes Salmagundi such a choice setting for period films like De Niro’s.

Still, slowly but surely, Arffmann is breathing life into this antiquated art scene. The first thing she did when she assumed the position last summer was to turn the website, which “looked older than the Internet,” into something more 21st century, adding color and a calendar of events. She then allowed the restaurant downstairs to cater non-member events to bring in another revenue stream. More importantly, she began a quiet re-branding campaign to turn the Salmagundi Club into the “Salmagundi Museum for Living Artists,” or alternately, the “Salmagundi Center for American Art.”

“It’s more than just a club,” says Arffmann, an attractive brunette who won’t divulge her age but will admit she has been working in the arts for over 37 years, many of them at the Met, where she was the head of visitor services until last January. “[The word] ‘club’ denotes that it’s just for members, when in fact almost everything it offers is open to the public.” Salmagundi hosts lectures, weekly art classes, and back-to-back art exhibits, on view every day from one to six. Every member, who is admitted to the club based upon dedication and skill, has roughly 14 opportunities to exhibit and six chances to auction their work, which runs the gamut from oil paintings to sculpture to photography.

At the current members combined show, a group of mostly 40 and up artists gathered recently for the wine and cheese reception in the gallery. Many, like Jean Krober, a 77-year-old sculptor who had a wood sculpture of a couple embracing on view, joined Salmagundi for the opportunity to exhibit her work, along with some fringe benefits. “I also like the dining room and bar,” admitted the Park Slope artist. “And the atmosphere—it’s unpretentious.”

Some come for the camaraderie.

“Basically, I’m alone, so this is a good place to meet artists, my favorite people,” said portraitist and still life painter Basil Baylin, who lives on the Upper East Side.

“I wanted to be with other artists,” echoes Judy Pestronk, an 85-year-old welder, sculptor and art professor at Nassau Community College. Pestronk is also a member of Pen and Brush, a sister arts club around the corner from Salmagundi, which opened in 1894 after female artists got tired being excluded. (Salmagundi admitted women in 1973.) Pen and Brush hasn’t aged as well as the Salmagundi, however, which is still thriving even though half of its members hail from outside the tri-state area. In fact, very few Salmagundi members live in the West Village today, which remained a low-rent haven for artists through the 1950s, when that New York School of artists moved in. Rather than meet at the Salmagundi, though, whose focus has always been traditional, representational art, abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning chose the nearby Cedar Tavern to talk about their work and (perhaps more famously) to booze.

“At one time, if you drew something that remotely looked like something else, you were persona non grata,” says Ilene Skeen, a curator of the Salmagundi’s traveling exhibit, which is touring the country through 2007. “Now all of the styles are back,” she said, referring to a small but significant trend among contemporary artists like John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton to specialize in older styles like portraiture. But even their work takes a sharp, experimental turn from the traditional portraits, still lifes and landscape art now on view at the Salmagundi. For younger artists, many of whom skip representational work and go straight to something more genre-bending, the Salmagundi probably seems outdated.

“Our membership is predominantly older,” Arffmann admits. “But there are a lot of benefits to being around other artists, and it would be wonderful to bring younger artists in,” she says. She maintains that the traditional work at the Salmagundi is still relevant despite the overall shift in taste toward contemporary art.

“‘Art is Experience’ is a book by John Dewey,” says Arffmann, adding proudly that the first 1934 edition sits in the Salmagundi’s library. Its premise is that while education can help us understand an artist’s intent, it’s the viewer’s observation and experience that brings art to life. “Art is about the experience of the artist connecting with the experience of the viewer, and the art at Salmagundi reflects things people can easily relate to.”

This affinity for recognizable images is what Arffmann believes will continue to attract people to Salmagundi and keep its art germane. Considering her 34 years at the Met, where she projected million-plus attendance figures for blockbuster shows like Tutankhamen, Degas, and Vermeer, Arffmann should know a thing or two about what lures the public to art exhibits. And since she was always spot-on in her projections, there’s no reason to expect she won’t reach her targets at Salmagundi, where she plans to add 50 more members by the end of the year.

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