National Art Associations and Societies

These organizations set and uphold professional standards

While it is no longer a widespread practice for artists to add the initials of art associations to which they belong to their signatures, earlier artists proudly placed initials after their names to call attention to the exclusive societies that offered them membership. Art societies and associations provide a stamp of approval for many artists and lend weight to blossoming or even established careers. Therefore, artists today do include the names of associations and societies of which they are members in their resumes and biographies.

For more than 150 years, American artists have been gathering together and forming art associations and societies to promote their individual work within a group setting and to share artistic and technical ideas with other artists. Most national and local art associations and societies in America are private organizations with their own guidelines and rules for membership. Many of them have been founded by a small group of artists who were looking for camaraderie within a specific area of artistic interest and were interested in promoting their work nationally.

Today's roster of art societies and associations contains dozens of established and newly formed groups in communities across the country. While some associations may be fairly easy to join and others are extremely competitive, all of them provide opportunities for professional connections, networking and artistic growth. It is usually more difficult for an artist to become a member of a national art society or association, since the sheer number of people applying for membership is greater than that of a regional or local group.

One of the oldest art societies in the country, the prestigious National Academy of Design (NA) remote, was founded in 1825 by a group of 30 New York artists (including Samuel FB Morse, of Morse code fame) for the dual purpose of establishing a school of art and of holding annual exhibitions of contemporary art. The Academy has five categories (sculpture, oil, watercolor, architecture, printmaking) and only 25 full members in each category. In order to become part of the National Academy of Design, an artist must be recommended for membership by a current member and voted in by the group at large. When a "Full Member" (NA) dies, a replacement is chosen from the Associate Members (ANA). Some Associates never become Full Academicians. This information can be of utmost importance for the appraisal and verification of artwork. For example, because of his association with the National Academy, we can track the dates of artwork (even if undated) by the great etcher/aquatint artist Doel Reed of Taos, NM. His early works were signed "Doel Reed"; after he was voted an Associate of the NA in 1942, he added "ANA" to his signature. And following his becoming a Full Member in 1952, his signature was followed by "NA".

Throughout the years, National Academy members have included some of America's most prominent painters, sculptors, architects and printers including Paul Cadmus, Winslow Homer, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Jasper Johns, Andrew Wyeth and Robert Rauschenberg. Today, 450 contemporary artists are members of the Academy. Examples of their work are displayed in the National Academy of Design Museum in  New York. Annual exhibitions are open to non-member artists across the nation and throughout the world.

Of the societies focused soley on watermedia, the American Watercolor Society (AWS) remote is the oldest. Founded in 1866 in New York, it has long and illustrious credentials: Winslow Homer had a difficult time getting accepted as a member! The Society holds an annual juried show, judged by current members, which regularly attracts applications from 2,000 painters. Approximately 80-120 paintings are chosen for exhibition. If an artist is selected to display work in three annual shows, he or she automatically becomes a member. The Society has approximately 500 active members

To become a member of the National Watercolor Society (NWS) remote, which was founded as the California Water Color Society in 1920 and became the National Watercolor Society in 1975, an artist must be accepted in a national NWS show. Artist members are called "Signature" members, while others (professionals and non-professionals) who are interested in the medium may become associate members. Currently, there are approximately 900 signature and 700 associate members.

Pastel artists exhibited their work with watercolorists in exhibitions sponsored by the AWS before the Pastel Society of America (PSA) remote as founded in 1972. The group's 660 full artist members participate in annual juried exhibits and are allowed to use the initials PSA after their names. The aims of the Society include uniting outstanding pastelists through membership in the Society, establishing a vehicle of communication for the exchange of ideas and news among members and holding annual shows at prominent galleries and museums.

While members of PSA and other societies paint a wide variety of subjects within their chosen medium, the Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) remote are painters of only realistic, western figurative paintings in the tradition of Remington and Russell. Western landscape and still life painters are not considered for membership. It is also required that a prospective member is making his or her living from art and has attended at least one annual exhibition, usually held in Phoenix. The Cowboy Artists of America is a small organization with 26 active members. Currently, there are no women members, although the group is open to members of both genders.

Western women artists have found support in the Women Artists of the West (WAOW) remote, a relatively new association that was established in 1971. Initially, the founders exclusively painted western scenes. Membership was quite low until 1988, when the group expanded its membership roster by including women who paint florals, European and American landscapes, equine and wildlife. Currently, the group has 131 juried members.

The oldest organization of professional sculptors in the US is the National Sculpture Society (NSS) remote. Master sculptors and architects Daniel Chester French, Augustus St Gaudens, Richard Morris Hunt and Stanford White founded the Society in 1893. Current members contribute to public sculpture throughout the US, as well as being represented in public and private collections around the world.

Peer review, acceptance and support are some of the most satisfying benefits of belonging to an art society or association. The peer review process that takes place within each art society offers affirmation of an artist's talent by a group of people who have also spent years perfecting their craft. The artist's life can be very solitary; an art society or association can provide a professional forum through which ideas can be shared. For many Southwestern artists who work in rural studios far away from an active art scene, an art association can offer a valuable link to the rest of the art world and keep members abreast of exhibitions, art trends and commission opportunities.

Thanks to Emily Van Cleve, who writes frequently about the art and artists of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 15

Related Pages

Glossary of Painting & Drawing Terms article
Glossary of Prints & Original Graphics Terms article
How Bronze Sculpture is Made article

What is Watercolor? article
A Brief History of Pastel Painting article


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