Gramercy Park Block Association - Neighborhood News #128
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Thursday, September 15, 2011  

As many former members come back, National ArtsClub President hopes to move forward

New National Arts Club President Dianne Bernhard

By Sabina Mollot


It was last Wednesday when hundreds of people gathered at the National Arts Club for an opening party, following a massive, months-long cleanup project at the historic building.


Club President Dianne Bernhard noted that it was the most crowded she'd ever seen the place.


"The Tilden Mansion was in all its glory," she said. "People were in tears."


But it was more than just a celebration for the club's new carpets, fresh coats of paint, and reupholstered furniture. Or even its newly elected board of volunteer governors. For many, it was a homecoming.


"There are a lot of members returning," said Bernhard, during a conversation at the 113-year-old institution this week. "They left during the previous administration."


It was shortly after the stepping down of O. Aldon James as club president after a quarter century, when the calls and letters began to pour in from former members, all offering their congratulations and support. One club source added that several of those letters included the word, "Hooray!"


Bernhard said she isn't sure of the total amount of letters the club received, though in one particular week, there were dozens.


As for James, he, his brother John, and family friend Steven Leitner, have a court hearing scheduled for Thursday morning with regards to a lawsuit they filed against the club last month over being made to leave the apartments they've lived in at the club building.


According to Bernhard, the "the James Group," as the trio has been referred to in court documents, has gotten a temporary restraining order preventing the club from proceeding with its own internal hearing over charges filed against the group by certain members.  "There is a hearing scheduled in state court on Thursday during which we hope the judge will allow our internal hearing to continue," said Bernhard.


As for where the Jameses and Leitner are currently staying, Bernhard said she doesn't know, and the attorney for the James group didn't return a call for comment. James' belongings are still at the club though, and as he is still a club member and resident, he comes and goes as he pleases.


In fact, the former club leader made a brief appearance as a Town & Village reporter was interviewing Bernhard, though he dashed outside the club to a waiting cab before he could be asked any questions.


Before doing so, he'd been searched by a security staffer, and appeared somewhat disheveled due to an eye patch he wore under his signature rose-tinted glasses.


Bernhard is loath to say much about her predecessor, although she insists she was unaware of the activities he's now accused of, including using the club's money as his personal piggy bank, giving cheap apartments to a favored few and harassment of members who crossed him.


And, she added, "I was one of his favorites, and he was my good friend. But I had no idea, many people had no idea he was hoarding rooms in the building."


Besides, it's not like she could have read about the last district attorney investigation of the club, which occurred a decade ago, in this newspaper, as any issue with unflattering stories about the NAC or James were hidden from view of members. While the club was being cleaned out over the summer, stacks of issues of T&V were found in rooms that had been used to stockpile flea market finds and other items.


Along with the cleanup of the club's vacant apartments and office spaces, which are now being prepped to rent to new tenants, a big part of Bernhard's new job, a volunteer position, is working with the authorities on two investigations into the club's finances. There is a possibility that the club could lose its nonprofit status, but Bernhard said the club has been cooperating fully with the offices of the district attorney and attorney general and "shown that we have changed our governance."


The 36 apartments, too, are the subject of some controversy. A watchdog group of members, the Concerned Artists, have requested that they be rented out affordably rather than at market rate.


Bernhard called the Concerned Artists a "great group of hardworking people," but said no decision can be made on the rents until the club gets a response from the appraiser hired to determine what the market rates actually are, and what the A.G. says the club can charge.


Other tasks for the new NAC administration include repairing relations with the Gramercy Park community, attracting new members to the club, and finally, being able to focus on the arts again.


Fortunately for Bernhard, "I've always had a high level of energy," she said.


But, she added, becoming club president wasn't actually something she would have volunteered for had other members not requested it.


"I knew I had to step up or step down," said the Texas native, who was previously the club's vice president. "And I had to step up."


Bernhard, who runs a foundation for artists, and began her career as an artist, said she also considers it a personal mission to see that artists someday be recognized by society as professionals the same way architects or other business people are.


"I feel like artists should be recognized - and paid - in their lifetime," she said. "But that probably won't happen in my lifetime."


For the time being, Bernhard seems content to focus on life at the club, and creating an environment that she hopes will feel "safe" and "inviting." Much of the lighting is new and more illuminating than in the past, the bright blue chairs and even the menus in the dining room are new, and stained glass ceiling panels, though quite old, are now clean and therefore finally visible.  


Blue tiles are visible on the ceiling now that it's been cleaned.

"Before it was quite dark," said Bernhard. "The new color is like a punch that speaks to its vibrancy. All the paintings look better."


Currently, the club is financially healthy, mostly due to the membership fees shelled out by around 2,000 people. Dues average $500-$1,000 a year, with younger members paying less. Those dues give members access to things like the club's dining room and bar and black-tie parties.


However, in the future more of an effort will be made to make non-members aware that they too can come into the building, and view the gallery art on display at any given time as well as attend arts lectures.


"We want to be a friend to the community," said Bernhard.  


Cleaned up mosaic work.

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