The National Institute of Arts and Letters, the parent body of the Academy, was founded in 1898 for “the advancement of art and literature.” The Institute met for the first time in New York City in February 1899, and began electing members that fall. Architects, artists, writers, and composers of notable achievement were eligible, and membership was soon capped at 250. In 1913, President Taft signed an act of Congress incorporating the organization in the District of Columbia.
In 1904 the Institute created the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prestigious inner body of its own members that modelled itself on the Académie française. The first seven members of the Academy were William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John La Farge, Mark Twain, John Hay, and Edward MacDowell. Those seven then chose eight more, and so on, until the full complement of 30, and later 50, was reached. Only after being elected to the Institute, was a member eligible for elevation to the Academy. This bicameral system of membership continued until 1993, when the Institute dissolved itself and all 250 members were enrolled in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Academy inaugurated its annual awards program in 1909 with the Gold Medal for Sculpture. Since then, over 70 awards and prizes have been endowed through gifts and bequests or established by the Academy’s board of directors in the fields of architecture, art, literature, and music. These are conferred each year at the Ceremonial in May when new members are inducted and a distinguished speaker is invited to deliver the Blashfield Address.
In 1923, the Academy moved to its current location on Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights. Its beaux-arts administration building was designed by Academy member William Mitchell Kendall, from the architecture firm McKim, Mead, & White, and houses the library, archives, members’ meeting room, exhibition galleries, and staff offices. A second, adjoining building, designed by Academy member Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1930, and includes a 730-seat auditorium and sky-lit exhibition gallery. The construction of these two buildings was paid for by philanthropist and Academy member Archer M. Huntington, who was responsible for the development of Audubon Terrace as a cultural complex.
In 2005 the Academy purchased the former headquarters of the American Numismatic Society, its neighboring building on Audubon Terrace. A Glass Link now connects the Academy’s existing galleries to newly renovated ones in the former Numismatic building. These new galleries house the permanently installed Charles Ives Studio.