The National Arts Club was founded in 1898 by the writer and New York Times art and literature critic Charles De Kay. This members-only club, currently located in the Samuel Tilden Mansion on 14 and 15 Gramercy Park, was established as a community for art lovers. A modern-day salon of sorts, this gorgeous brownstone was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. The inside is even more stunning, with walls lined with paintings by American artists such as Robert Henri, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Henry Potthast. One of the highlights of the interior is a stained-glass dome in the building fabricated by the glass master and Tiffany’s rival Donald MacDonald. While the NAC does focus mainly on American artists (the collection was created during a period when artists began looking to America, rather than Europe, for inspiration), they do have some international artists in their collection such as Rembrandt. The public can visit the club during its open hours and during monthly programming, but the restaurant and bar are reserved for members only.
The National Arts Club has a strong connection with the Italian-American community in New York City. “In fact, the current and past president of the club, Alice Palmisano and Linda Zagaria, are both Italian-American women.” A third female president, Adriana de Mezzi Racca Zahn, who held that position in the 1980s, was also Italian-American. I talked with several members from various departments of the NAC to learn about its rich history, goals for the future, and connection to the Italian-American community of New York City.
Ray Dowd has been an NAC Member since 2006 and currently serves as a Member of the Board of Governors. When he is not at the club, he is a practicing lawyer and often is involved with cases that pertain to the arts, such as the restitution of stolen Nazi art. After attending Manhattan College in the Bronx and Fordham Law School, he spent some time in Siena at the Dante Alighieri School, learning Italian. He then got a job at a law firm in Milan for a few years before coming back to the New York. One of his goals on the Board of Governors is to bring “Italian culture and cultures of the world into the National Arts Club to celebrate.”
Dowd said, “I became involved with the National Arts Club through an attorney who was representing a model while I was representing a photographer and we settled the case. He invited me to go to the bar for a drink and I fell in love with the National Arts Club.” And there he has remained since 2006.
Another National Arts Club member involved with the Italian-American community is native New Yorker Linda Zagaria, ex-president of the club. Zagaria has been a member since 1990 and has “always had a passion for the Arts.” She has also won the Presidential Award–a medal of outstanding service and achievement–twice during her time at the club. Outside of her work at the club, Linda serves as the Executive Director of the Beaux Arts Alliance (a non-profit organization that celebrates links between the USA and France). She is also an educator and has a deep interest in historic preservation.
The National Arts Club in New York should be noted for its inclusive relationship with women since its inception. At a time when women did not yet even have the right to vote, the fact that the National Arts Club asked them to stand side by side as equals with their male counterparts was nothing short of “radical for the time,” said Dowd.
The National Arts Club has reciprocities with clubs in other cities such as Lisbon, London and Spain, where members can go stay when they are traveling abroad. When I asked Dowd what about Italy, he responded that they had no relationships with Italian clubs, one of the reasons being “that many clubs in Italy don’t permit women.” On this topic, Zagaria said that “it’s time for these Italian clubs to move into the 21st century and expand their horizons. Imagine how much more vibrant and productive these clubs would be if women were allowed to enter.” Maybe this is a change we will see in the near future as the topic of gender equality becomes discussed increasingly on a global scale.
But general manager, John Eramo, another integral member of the National Arts Club, has not given up hope. Eramo is from just outside of Rome and attended the University of Rome for a few years before moving to New York city in 1976. Even though he is in the hospitality industry, he has a strong love for the arts– having studied at a “Liceo Classico” in Italy–and he “became really excited” when the position opened up at the NAC. When I asked Ray Dowd about Eramo’s role at the club he said that he “gives a lot of charm and flavor” to the club. “He has a charming Italian accent and he is really excellent at food and wine connections, which really contribute to our dining room, providing special treats for members.” Since arriving at the National Arts Club he has also planned wine tastings with food pairings for members of the club.
Eramo is dedicated to finding a reciprocity club in Italy and has talked to clubs in Florence and Rome about building a relationship with his club. He explained that the clubs he contacted “only have three or four overnight accommodations and they already have a similar arrangement with another club in a different city.” He is also committed to finding a club in Italy that will accept women and stated that when searching for reciprocities he “didn’t even inquire” if he saw that women were not allowed.
This focus on the importance of women in the club also extends to the club’s bar and restaurant. The NAC has a great bar and restaurant for its members and their guests, set among beautiful paintings and portraits. The past two chefs have been women and the current head chef is an Italian-American woman. Club member Deborah Montaperto says, “we are very proud and there aren’t that many female chefs, especially at clubs.” On a typical night at the club, the dining room is full of members, some who live in the club. The kitchen also puts on cooking classes for members and recently had a class on how to make cranberry sauce for the holiday season.
Contrary to what one may think, The National Arts Club does not only focus on visual art. Along with their interest in fine food and drink, they also have committees in fields such as dance, music, literature and theatre. Each year these committees award medals of lifetime achievement to individuals who have shown excellence in their field. Many people of Italian descent have been recipients of these prestigious awards.
“We awarded the medal of honor to Gian Carlo Menotti in 1991 and in 2004 the music medal went to Joseph Volpe. He was the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera for many, many years,” said Zagaria. Frank Stella also won the lifetime achievement award in visual arts in 2001. Don DeLillo won the literature award in 2008. “In film, we have had three recipients of Italian-American background, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Paul Sorvino,” said Zagaria. Martin Scorsese was also a Medal of Honor recipient for film.
Of course, all of these operations came to a halt during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some members do live on-premise, visitors were no longer allowed in the club. Although this was difficult, Dowd did say that they took advantage of the club’s closure by doing some much-needed construction work. About the pandemic, Dowd said, “most people have business interruption insurance that excludes the pandemic for some reason. We had it, and not only that, we had increased the limit just before the pandemic which was quite fortuitous.”
NAC member and Governing Board member Deborah Montaperto said that during the pandemic they “actually increased [their] reach and did not lose many members.” By putting on Zoom events and lectures, the National Arts Club was able to reach a wider audience than ever both nationally and internationally. Eramo stated that they had up to 100,000 followers watching their programs virtually during the pandemic. They were even receiving donations from these viewers to keep them going.
Since reopening, the club has held both in-person and virtual programming, including a monthly speaker series. They also recently closed a temporary exhibition on the work of Andy Warhol that was a big success. Prime Minister of England Boris Johnson even attended the show. This just goes to show the importance of international outreach for the National Arts Club, even though they house a collection of mainly American art. On this topic, Dowd said, “We’ve done outreach to the cultural attachés of embassies around the world and Italy is top on our target list.”
Another new challenge for the National Arts Club will be bringing in a younger audience and membership as the average age of members of these private clubs historically ranges from 55-60. Deborah Montaperto, an NAC member since 2010, moved from Italy to New York city with her then-husband and became involved with the club. Having studied art history in college at Tufts University and then Villa Schifanoia in Florence, she “wanted to surround [herself] with an art community.” She now works on Wall Street, but has been an active member of the club since she joined.
It has become part of Deborah’s mission to bring in a new and younger membership to the club. Montaperto speaks enthusiastically about the club and says “I really feel that this is the Renaissance of the club.” She also helped work on the new temporary exhibition in the recently renovated gallery of the club which features the art of Halim A. Flowers, the painter and spoken word artist. His art comments on race and mass incarceration in America. The artist himself was imprisoned as a minor in 1997 before being released in 2019 under a new juvenile resentencing law.
Since reopening the National Arts Club in the Spring, the club has begun to see younger members. The average age of members joining now ranges from 45-50. This could be due in part to the new formation of the Young Members Committee. Justinian Montaperto, Deborah’s son and a new member of the club, said that he thinks “it is just a matter of awareness.” Justinian is a native New Yorker, furniture restorer, art dealer and enthusiast. After seeing his mother’s involvement with the club, he decided to join. When Justinian and his fiancée started frequenting the club he said they were “shocked” that “the club isn’t packed with younger people.”
With new club membership come new ideas. Justinian suggested that, “maybe the arts club could partner with other institutions in New York, whether it is galleries, or certain community spaces that put on cool events, and partner with them to bring the right people in.” He also said that the club could open on Saturday evenings to draw in a younger audience. “It’s gonna get there if they want to. It’s such an impressive monument to the time and space.”
John Eramo said that since the pandemic has ended, he has noticed new young members entering with Italian and Italian-American backgrounds. Justinian said that this is “a pretty natural pairing” as “Italian culture is known for being imbued with this certain artistic approach whether you are cooking, speaking, or arguing.”
On the role of Italian-Americans in the National Arts Club Zagaria states, “I have never met an Italian that is not interested in the arts. Let’s put it this way, it kind of runs in our blood.” And that it truly does. Italians have added a flair to the melting pot that is America ever since they began to immigrate here in the late 1800s, bringing with them the food, art and music that makes Italy one of the most beloved countries in the world. So, it is no surprise that we have also left a profound mark on arts organizations such as the National Arts Club, working alongside fellow lovers of the finer things in life such as art, food and high culture to share that love with the greater New York community.