An organization of 250 artists, writers, composers, sculptors and architects elected for life. Maintaining a consistent number of members, replacements occur when members die. The purpose is to foster sustained interest in Literature, Music and Fine Art through awards and prizes, exhibitions, performances and gifts to museums.
The AAAL was founded in 1898 with the name of National Institute of Arts and Letters with the goal of recognizing those Americans of the highest artistic achievement.
Early members were William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John LaFarge, Mark Twain and Henry James. Each member was assigned a chair in the order of election. Incorporation of the Institute was 1913 by an Act of Congress, and three years later The Academy was incorporated by Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1976, the two organizations merged but had two levels of membership and operated as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1993, they chose one name—- American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The headquarters are in Manhattan at 633 West 155th Street in a building designed by the architecture firm of McKim, Mead & White—-all three were members. A second building is located near the Headquarters and houses a 730-seat auditorium is for performances.
Both structures are in the Audubon Terrace Historic District. The archives have correspondence among members, original manuscripts and works of art. In 1946, the Academy began a purchase program with the goal of placing works by living American artists in museums across the country.
Many of these purchases are made during their annual exhibitions, held in May. This project was instituted by Maude Hassam, the wife of member Child Hassam, with a bequest of 400 of his works. She stipulated that proceeds from the sale be used to establish a fund to purchase works on paper.
Other bequests were made by members Eugene Speicher, Louis Betts, and Gardner Symons. Academy Awards are given at the May exhibition and include the Award of Merit of $10,000.00, Jimmy Ernst Award of $5,000.00 and the Richard and Hinda Rosethal Foundation for $5,000.00.