Gramercy Park Block Association - Neighborhood News #324
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 Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rev. Pike running for president of NAC


Pike, Bernhard and Harrison
Photo by Sabina Mollot
Rev. Tom Pike, National Arts Club vice president; Diane Bernhard, club president and Arlene Harrison, Gramercy Park Block Association president



By Sabina Mollot


   Former Calvary-St. George's Church Rector Tom Pike, who in January became a board member of the National Arts Club, is planning to run for president there once the term of current president Dianne Bernhard is up in May.

   So far no one else has expressed interest in doing so that he knows of, said Pike, who just two weeks ago was elected the club's vice president. The former V.P. John Morisano stepped down in a transition Pike described as "friendly" and Bernhard said Pike's election was unanimous at a meeting.

   Bernhard said when the club votes for its next president, she isn't interested in running again but would still remain extremely active by running the fine arts governance committee, which collaborates projects between the club and museums.

   Meanwhile, Pike's recent move to become a board member was seen as a symbolic end to a nearly-two decade long feud between the club and two community groups that he is also a member of, the Gramercy Park Block Association, where he serves as vice president, and the Gramercy Park Trustees. Both groups had a contentious relationship with the NAC when it was still headed by former president O. Aldon James. The situation reached a boiling point in 2001 when the club sued the Trustees over allegations of racism. James had accused the group's then-chair Sharon Benenson of objecting when he'd invited a group from Washington Irving High School, mostly students of color, into the gated park. The Trustees denied any racism.

   Relations between the two groups were mostly nonexistent after that, until Bernhard called for a truce not long after becoming president of the club in the spring of 2011. Since then, GPBA President Arlene Harrison, also a park trustee, said she, Pike and Bernhard have begun meeting regularly about neighborhood business. Pike and Harrison each have lived on Gramercy Park for over 40 years, and have worked closely together on countless projects both in Gramercy Park, in the neighborhood and throughout the city as well.  Harrison has even become known citywide as a preservationist for her dedication in protecting the Park.

   Additionally, the Block Association is now working to bring Gramercy Park neighbors back to the club. Harrison, a former NAC member in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said "Tom and I are grateful to be working closely with Dianne to bring back many of our Gramercy Park Block Association neighbors who left the club in the early 1990s." The club will be welcoming back GPBA members in an event scheduled for April 4th titled "The Gramercy Park Block Association and the National Arts Club Celebrate Each Other", which will be co-hosted by Harrison and Bernhard.

   "It's taken two years to get to the place where people are beginning to trust again," said Bernhard, during a recent conversation with a reporter in the club's parlor alongside Pike and Harrison.

   Though not eyeing any board positions, Harrison has said she plans on being at the club regularly as a community liaison. 

   When asked about the groups' current relationship, Bernhard described it as "neighborly."

"The park," she said, "has a beautiful fence and that makes me think of how good fences make good neighbors. The park trustees do not want to control the club and the club does not want to control the park."

   Whoever is running the club in the future may have a longer time in the role between elections to do it though. Recently, the club moved to change its bylaws so that the two-year term for president (a volunteer position like those of the 21 governors of the board) would become a six-year term. Additionally, the club is also aiming to change the amount of members needed for a quorum during a vote. Currently half the membership (now 2,200 people) is needed for a vote, but the club is trying to get that changed to a third of the membership.

   Pike, who still does some preaching at Calvary Church, has an extensive background in the arts, having worked in development at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, and has also been an advocate for historic preservation. For 17 years, he held the title of landmarks commissioner under Mayors Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg. 

   On the board at NAC, Pike's been involved in financial decisions that affect the club, such as the planning of costly repair jobs.

   "There's a lot of infrastructure we have to keep up," he said.

While there has been some deferred maintenance for financial reasons, upkeep of the old building, known as the Tilden Mansion, has been a top priority of Bernhard's for safety reasons.

    Referring to the last administration change, in which James stepped down amidst charges of looting the club's coffers and terrorizing anyone who crossed him, Bernhard said that it had been her goal to repair the club's relationship with the GPBA and to bring the focus of the club back on the arts.

    "I came to this club because it was full of artists," she said. "That's how I wanted it to always be. Then it started to become a different group of people. Two years ago the board determined (the club) should return to the arts and I knew I had to step up or step down."

Gesturing to Pike and Harrison, she added, "When you see the three of us sitting here, you have to ask: What made the three of us stand guard? It had to be something worth saving."

Harrison added that it was Bernhard's interest in trying to mend the club's broken relationship with the neighborhood that made her want to be a part of it again and encourage other former members to come back. 

    Pike on the other hand, who also became a club member years ago, has remained on board. If elected, he said he wants to continue what Bernhard has done in terms of community outreach. 

    "She doesn't play favorites and she's very involved with people," he said. "When neighbors share their concerns, she's interested, so that's a refreshing change."

    As chair of the fine arts governance committee, Bernhard said she plans to organize at least four big shows a year at the club, where the dining room and bar are for members only but the art galleries are open to the public.

    "We don't want to be a staid, stale club," said Bernhard. "We want to be a vibrant learning environment that just ambles out into the neighborhood."

    Additionally, she said she was already working on an artist-in-residence program. While details have not yet been discussed, one possible plan is to have five member artists who'd work in studios at the club's parkside building. 

     How the artists would be chosen has yet to be determined, although they would have to be working artists or aspiring professional artists.  

    "We are an educational institution," said Bernhard. "Our goal is to be a power broker that brings artists from suffering to the museum."

    The club, which is a nonprofit and registered charity, has also spent a significant amount of money in legal fees battling with James, his brother John and friend Steven Leitner as they fight to keep their memberships and below-market rate apartments at the club building. However, Bernhard said the club is still financially healthy and can cover the costs of maintaining the building and putting on programming such as exhibits and artist, architect and author talks.

    When asked if she had any advice for the next club president, Bernhard had this to say: "Don't ever forget the power of the arts. Art is healing. It transcends all boundaries."


This article has been edited from its original version.