It’s a big week at New York’s National Arts Club, with internal hearings taking place that will determine whether a longtime president will be ousted from the club’s membership.
The august East Side institution, which hosts art exhibitions, film screenings and other events, has boasted members from Cecilia Beaux to Martin Scorsese. Under investigation by the state attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney for financial irregularities, the club is at the center of a series of suits and countersuits, as reported this weekend in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The controversy radiates from the eccentric, wealthy and frequently bow-tied O. Aldon James, 64, president of the club from 1986 until 2011, when board members forced him out. The same board members are holding a hearing this week to discuss revoking club membership for James and his identical twin brother, John, along with their friend Steven Leitner.
Founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay, former literary and art critic for the New York Times, and housed in a grand Gothic Revival mansion overlooking New York’s Gramercy Park, the club has seen a succession of crises involving misappropriated money over the last decade. After admitting to tax evasion and misuse of club funds in 2003, John James paid $500,000 in fines and restitution and spent three months in a psychiatric facility, according to the Times.
The opposing board members aim to have the three men evicted from as many as 20 apartments and other spaces they have colonized in the residential building that adjoins the club’s premises—on some of which they pay as little as $356 a month, the Times says. Aldon James is accused of misusing hundreds of thousands in club funds for personal flea market purchases and then storing them in club-owned apartments—costing the club an estimated $1.5 million in rental income—as well as verbally abusing club members and generally running the institution as a fiefdom, according to the article.
New club president Dianne Bernhard, once Aldon James’s protégé, has been involved with the club since the mid-’90s. Wife of an heir to the Value Line financial services dynasty and a self-described “farm girl from Texas,” she took over the presidency when James’s increasingly strange behavior, including verbal and physical fights with his brother, reportedly led to his taking a three-month leave in spring 2011.
A few more highlights from the Times account:
Aldon James grew the club from 385 members in 1985 to more than 2,000 today, but various members describe him as a despot: “Aldon James and his group created a mini-communist state there, with portraits and busts of him everywhere,” according to club member Ted Andrews. “He controlled peoples’ lives to some extent because he controlled the apartments in the building.” Andrews is the spokesman for Concerned Artists and Members of the National Arts Club, which has opposed the James brothers’ leadership since the early 1990s.
Bernhard tells the Times that when she first arrived at the club, “I felt like I had stepped back in time,” then continued, “I felt like I was at the nexus of the art world.” She comes in for harsh criticism from the pro-James faction. “Dianne Bernhard is a cultural fraud,” Laurence Cutler, chairman of Newport, R.I.’s National Museum of American Illustration, is quoted as saying. “If you look at her art, it’s the kind of stuff you see on velvet.”
Building superintendent Steve Acosta reports finding cups of urine among the James’ personal clutter in club stairwells. The James brothers allegedly threatened to fire him when he attempted to clean up.
The club now seeks a manager. It sounds like a tough job, but they’re offering $100,000 a year.