Society of Arts and Letters elects five Elis

Maybe it’s something in the water.

Of the 10 artists elected to become members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters earlier this month, half have ties to Yale. Four alumni, along with English professor Michael Cunningham accepted seats in the academy, said Executive Director Virginia Dajani.

“You kind of closed the market, didn’t you?” she quipped.

Dean of the School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, along with composer Martin Boykan MUS ’53, Music professor Aaron Jay Kernis MUS ’83, and painter Sylvia Plimack Mangold ART ’61, join Cunningham in the honor.

Six of 10 artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters are affilated with Yale.
Six of 10 artists elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters are affilated with Yale.

Although Yale professor and editor of the Yale Review J. D. McClatchy GRD ’74 is the president of the academy, he did not have any special influence over this year’s crop of artists, Dajani said.

The selection process includes the whole academy’s membership, which consists of 250 leading American writers, composers, painters, sculptors and architects. The number of spots to be filled each year depends on how many members died the previous year. The remaining academy members nominate artists to fill the vacancies.

For Boykan, the pleasure of receiving the award was marred by the death in January of composer Milton Babbit, who had been an academy member since 1965.

“This is a blow for all of us, and for music in general,” Boykan said. He added that he considers it a “civic duty” to help recognize and support younger artists, and he is glad to become a member of the academy because of its work in granting awards to new talent.

Until the early 1990s, new members would know whose seat they were inheriting, because the academy consisted of only 50 members. Today, new members don’t enter into an existing lineage, but there are still brass plaques on the society’s original seats, so one can see which chair Henry James or Edith Wharton once favored.

For Stern, membership in the academy comes on top of the Driehuas Prize in Classical Architecture, which he received in December.

“It’s been a big year for me,” Stern said. “I guess you live long enough and nice things happen to you.”

Stern joins his colleague, School of Architecture professor Peter Eisenman, in the honor society, and he said he looks forward to serving on the committees that help distribute the more than $1 million in prize money the academy awards each year.

“I think that’s one of the most important functions of the academy,” he said, “and I will take my responsibilities very seriously.”

The 131-year-old academy was established to “foster, assist and sustain an interest in literature, music and the fine arts,” and is chartered by Congress, Dajani said.

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