Evenings at the National Arts Club

By Melvyn Kohn
October 27, 2009

While in London, I joined the Arts Club; several years I spent in its comfortable rooms overlooking Dover St. Then it became fashionable, and Madonna joined. The likes of me, unfashionable as I am, left. Which is a pity, because it has reciprocal agreements with many clubs, such as the National Arts Club in NY; situated on Gramercy Park no less. Which is where I spent two evenings lately. While I am a member of neither at the moment, I am of the St. George's Society of NY, and they put on events once a month there. I go along and meet the old gang, sure that I will not encounter drug taking singers into Kaballah. Instead, one meets wonderful people like John Shannon, the director and almoner. He sees to it that there is a happening programme on each month at the Arts Club and other venues that host St. George's events. September's roster for us at the NAC included Deborah Winer, playwright, columnist and artistic director at the 92nd St. Y; Jim Weber, jazz pianist, and; Mark Nadler, a Jewish comedian who sings in a Cockney accent. They not only impressed me, but my more discerning guests, actor Mike Stranger and singer Arielle Adamy.

I did not have the pleasure of their company this month, as both are on a road trip to the Big Easy where Arielle is headlining at the House of Blues for Halloween. Instead, the lovely Marla Mossman accompanied me for a discussion of fluctuation in prices in the art market; admittedly not a lively sounding event, but it turned out to be well worth the trip. Jim Dale OBE opened up with a story about Jeremy Brent, whose mews he used to visit in Notting Hill when he picked up his children from school. One time two brothers invited them up to their country cottage, which included its own island, a spacious fireplace, a dovecote with 100 doves, and other such amenities. As they talked the brothers told them they had to sell their beloved cottage, and the asking price was 7,000 pounds. Immediately on hearing this Jeremy produced a cheque, which he signed with great calligraphic flourish and presented to the lads. They stood in shock, and handed over the keys, at which point he marched out, with them and Jim in tow, and in more theatricality, tossed them into the stream. To his stunned audience he explained: "No friend of mine will ever find my front door locked."

One of the brothers, catching his voice, piped up that they would need the keys for another 30 days as they needed time to vacate, and so began a frantic search for them in the icy waters, all four men joining in. When at last they were retrieved from the stream, Jim saw fit to cut short their visit and drive back to London. In his car, he said to Jeremy: "I wish I had the funds to just write a cheque for 7,000 pounds," to which Jeremy replied: "So do I. But it was great theatre, was it not? Worth at least an Oscar."

Two weeks later Jeremy got a knock on the door; it was the brothers, standing there with tears in their eyes, cheque in hand, begging him to take it back and let them continue to reside in their ancestral abode. He, with great magnamity and more theatrical gestures, agreed and took back his cheque.

We were brought back to the present reality, where lovely little cottages cost a lot more than 7,000 pounds, by the panel discussion, which included Alan Rithcie, an architect; George McNeely, senior VP at Christies, and; Robert Steele of the epynomous gallery on 25th St. Alan showed us images of the buildings he had designed: the Lipstick Building, the Sony Building, Trump International, the Performing Arts Centre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most of his creations are glass houses, a style much in vogue in NY. It is not my cup of tea, but perhaps I ought not to throw stones. Some can be quite artistic, such as the Time Warner towers on Columbus Circle, which rise into the air like shards of obsidian, graced at the top with a lavender neon light.

George regaled us with charts and graphs of the auction world, showing the boom in the '80s from Japanese investors, another boom in the '90s from the dotcommers, and last year's boom from people shifting funds away from other markets; not a good sign really. This year has been a slowdown so far. It all reflects the reality of the fact that we did not develop our own energy but spend too much on petrol.

Robert then gave us more facts from a different angle, the secondary art market. Much the same picture emerged. One conclusion from all this was that people are looking for more quality. Buildings must be more functional, and art must have more intrinsic, cultural and lasting value. Expect a turn towards expressive realism in the art world. This is what lasts. And a good thing it would be. In the days of Exodus, the Lord provided for Israel by sending Bezaleal, a talented artist, to make works for the the temple. Frivolous fads were not in fashion. Since that day, the likes of da Vinci and Chagall have created lasting works that hold their value. But the true value of art is not the price it can fetch under a hammer, but the sense of wonder and thoughtfulness it imparts to the viewer. So if we see more of this, so much the better. Maybe that is the silver lining to the recession.


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