Manhattan's exclusive Gramercy Park is home to the Players and the National Arts Club, two private clubs located within steps of each other where artists and like-minded supporters socialize in wood-paneled environs. While their well-appointed townhouses are awash in 19th-century charm, they are fighting to stay relevant in the 21st century.
The kind of member they hope to attract is someone like Gregory Press, an information-technology worker and arts patron who lives on the Upper West Side.
Friends have previously suggested he join an arts club, but the idea, he said, didn't compute. "I pay, just to hang out?"
Bryan Smith for The Wall Street Journal
Norwood Arts Club is a relative newcomer among New York's private clubs. 'You want a good mix' of members, says owner Alan Linn.
What Mr. Press did find compelling, however, was CultureHorde, which has no clubhouse. Launched this year, its roughly 300 members pay $495 a year for access to arts events around the city. In August, they could attend the Public Theater's "Love's Labour's Lost" in Central Park without waiting in line and with access to the opening-night afterparty. In September, they're heading to a preview party with the Metropolitan Opera's Young Associates.
"This is more about access to things I want to do anyway," said Mr. Press, who liked the idea of someone else handpicking the events and organizing the outing.
In the past, the theater-centric Players Club, founded in 1888, and the National Arts Club, founded with a visual-arts focus in 1898, may have conferred a certain intellectual cachet. But as fall membership drives start, New York's cultural sector has long since spiraled away from Edith Wharton-era pleasantries, and the centrality of the Gramercy Park clubs has diminished, not least because of their location.
Much of the creative class now lives in Brooklyn and Queens, and even in Manhattan, Gramercy is distant from uptown bastions of wealth as well as edgier neighborhoods downtown.
Bryan Smith for The Wall Street Journal
The backyard dining area at Norwood Arts Club, which holds monthly dinners for randomly selected members in addition to wine tastings, film screenings and other events.
Legal and financial crises haven't helped the Players or National Arts Club maintain their standing either. The former saw its executive director of nearly 20 years resign in April amid internal revelations of its debts, which are ongoing but being addressed. The National Arts Club was the subject of an 18-month investigation by Eric T. Schneiderman, New York's attorney general. The result was a suit against the club's former president, O. Aldon James, for alleged mismanagement of a nonprofit. In a July settlement, he agreed to pay $950,000 but did not admit wrongdoing.
At the Players, its walls covered with theater memorabilia, its president, Johnnie Planco, has urged a new executive committee to embrace its identity as a place for those who love the stage. "We are universally known, for over 100 years, as a theater club," he said. "We have to maintain that."
To catch more post-show traffic, it will keep its bar open until midnight, or as demand warrants. It hosts regular "Meet Your Fellow Players" mixers, and this month holds an event celebrating the return of its John Singer Sargent painting, which had been put up for collateral on a loan but has been returned. (It is still for sale.)
They are, by some measures, small moves, but the club is competing with uptown watering holes like Joe Allen and Orso, which the Broadway crowd has turned into de facto clubs.
Longtime member and actor Richard Thomas, recently on Broadway in "An Enemy of the People," regularly brings friends to the Players Club and knows the kibitzing on West 46th Street has a strong pull. "Some come in and say 'This is amazing.' Some say, 'I want to go have a drink at Bar Centrale,' " he said.
Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal
The National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South in Manhattan
But Mr. Planco argues that the club, which has about 600 members, can be the heir to Elaine's, the legendary, now-closed Upper East Side gathering spot. To build a broad, accomplished membership, he has sought out theater, television and film industry groups.
A new plan to offer discounted membership rates-the basic is $2,000-to qualifying actors is under way. "If we were to have 900 members, we would be in the black," he said.
Next door at the National Arts Club, its new president, the Rev. Thomas Pike , described its financial situation as healthy, though he acknowledged "we have had difficulties in the past." The 2,000-member club's emphasis is on art, which he called "the central programmatic concern of the club."
Its collection includes sculpture by Paul Manship and paintings by Robert Henri and Will Barnet, a 30-year artist in residence. Pieces rotate throughout the club's galleries, and after a recent housecleaning, works that hadn't been shown in years were found and exhibited. "We take very seriously the preservation and exhibition of that collection," Rev. Pike said.
To emphasize new work, the club is fostering a renewed relationship with arts schools, and a greater diversity of exhibitions has been implemented, according to board member Ira Goldberg, who is also executive director of the Arts Students League.
Membership fees vary and are under review, but the base is $1,075 for a resident individual. Rev. Pike feels the barrier to membership is not cost but the process of joining, since a current member must sponsor each new applicant. "Our biggest problem is that people don't know anyone in the club," he said.
CultureHorde doesn't require sponsorship to join, nor does the Norwood Club, another relative newcomer founded in 2007. Norwood, unlike CultureHorde, has a physical space, a townhouse in the Meatpacking District where each year an artist is invited to create work for the first floor.
The two clubs have fewer committees and leadership positions than the Players or National Arts Club, but like them, they put a premium on mingling. Events such as wine tastings, artists' talks and movie screenings are organized by Norwood's management, and because the focus is on "alchemy," said owner Alan Linn, the club hosts monthly dinners at which 16 members are randomly selected and asked to attend solo.
Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal
The interior of the National Arts Club, a 2,000-member organization with a focus on visual art
In addition to $2,000 in annual dues, Norwood is looking for members to add something unique to the 1,100 roster. Ideal candidates range from musicians to graphic designers to finance leaders who support the arts.
"You want a good mix," Mr. Linn said. "There is nothing worse than having just one clique."
Bringing together a savvy crowd in exclusive settings is what the older clubs once did so well. The Players founders include Mark Twain and Edwin Booth, the greatest
Shakespearean actor of his day. At the National Arts Club, artist members included Frederic Remington, William Merritt Chase and architect Stanford White.
Their storied histories are a double-edged sword, turning off some prospective members while attracting others. Their health is of concern to the president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, Arlene Harrison, a.k.a. the Mayor of Gramercy Park, a modern-day town crier who considers them an asset to the neighborhood.
"If they do keep up with the times, they can survive," she said. "They have to stay current so they become a place that people flock to."
A version of this article appeared September 3, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Clubs Go Soul-Searching.