The American Academy of Arts and Letters has announced that 29 new members and four honors members will be added to its ranks during a virtual award ceremony on May 19 at 7 p.m. EST.
Considered the highest form of recognition of artistic merit in the United States, the 300-member academy includes visual artists, composers, and writers. New members are elected by existing members and are elected to lifetime terms.
Among the visual artists to be inducted this year are Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, and an artist with deep Houston ties, Mel Chin. Other notable laureates include actor/director Spike Lee, musician Wynton Marsalis, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Since 1908, membership was limited to 250, a tradition which changed last November, allowing for the 300-member extension. The board of directors is committed to creating a more inclusive membership that truly represents America, and believes that expanding the Academy’s membership will allow the Academy to more readily achieve that goal. The increase also reflects the growth in the population over the past century. The expansion will be realized incrementally over the next five years.
The Academy also recognizes honorary members of their choosing, selecting up to twenty Americans of extraordinary artistic achievement, and up to 75 distinguished foreign architects, artists, writers, and composers. This year, four honorary members were selected: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Spike Lee, both American, while Unsuk Chin and Balkrishna Doshi have been honored in the foreign category.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Early members include William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Edward MacDowell, Theodore Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. The Academy’s 300 members are elected for life and pay no dues.
In addition to electing new members as vacancies occur, the Academy seeks to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts by administering over 70 awards and prizes totaling more than $1 million, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, and purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country.