In the early 1970s, the great and melodramatic artistic debates of the 20th century were petering out: abstraction versus representation, skill versus theory, popular versus elite. But for New Jersey-based food manufacturer, art collector, and millionaire Fred Ross, the debates never ended. He represents an art historical fork in the road, away from the mainstream.
Mr. Ross is the chairman of an organization called the Art Renewal Center (ARC) that serves as one of the largest nodes in the Classical Realist movement. Founded in 1999, they connect thousands of artists, teachers, and collectors. They hold annual juried exhibitions and honor living artists with titles, like in the days of yore. At a glance, it seems like a multi-level marketing scheme, with its membership fees and tiered ranking system. However, it’s not, at least not any more than the conventional art world is.
I met up with Ross and his daughter Kara to discuss the origins of the ARC, and to see what I could learn about that decisive, though largely forgotten, moment. For Mr. Ross, it began with an encounter in 1977 at the Clark Art Institute, where he saw William Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Nymphs and Satyr” (1873) for the first time. He had already been collecting old master works, and held a MA in art education from Columbia. That he had never seen or heard of Bouguereau before this moment awoke him to the perceived scam of modern art. He saw Modernism and its mutations as a price-fixing scheme run by a small but powerful elite group of gatekeepers, that had severed Western man’s ties to meaningful traditions and values, primarily expressed through figurative painting and sculpture.
There was also a growing public discourse along the same lines. In 1975, Tom Wolfe published The Painted Word, a book of reactionary art criticism mourning the death of the image and the rise of theory. It was successful and critically acclaimed by readers outside of the art world. It captured the feelings of a populist, silent majority, those too embarrassed to admit that they didn’t get “it.” Wolfe was partly taking aim at fellow conservative Hilton Kramer, who in his review of the 1974 exhibition Seven Realists at Yale University, claimed that, “Though realism flourishes, it continues to do so in an intellectual void,” and “lacks a persuasive theory.” Although the art world unanimously dismissed the text, the popularity of its central ideas have never gone away.
Another pivotal moment happened for Mr. Ross at the same time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art inaugurated the newly constructed Andre Meyer’s galleries in 1980. The new galleries were large enough to include an edge-to-edge survey of the Met’s collection of European works, including the salon paintings of the 19th-century academy that had been in storage for most of the 20th century. Academic postmodernism, it seems, had become an unlikely ally of Mr. Ross’s premodernism. In the New York Times Hilton Kramer wrote that those paintings should “remain buried,” for “it is the destiny of corpses, after all.” Kramer goes on to blame the “post-modernist dispensation.” He says, “No art is so dead that an art historian cannot be found to detect some simulacrum of life in its moldering remains.” Taking a cue from Wolfe, Mr. Ross intervened, and took out his own Times advertisement.
This voice became Mr. Ross’s signature style, and by the time the ARC was online in 2002 his cranky and wholesome 19th-century parlor rhetoric became a key component to the viral popularity of ARC’s message. I remember how quotes from his essays, like the “Great 20th Century Art Scam,” were a common sight in the mid 2000s on forums such as conceptart.org where many isolated artists found themselves in community for the first time. Many of those artists were students in the growing atelier system.
Ateliers are (usually) non-accredited art schools that are much cheaper than traditional four year colleges and focus mostly on technical training in drawing, painting, or sculpture. Since the ARC began to form its atelier network in 2002, the number of ateliers operating globally has grown from 15 to over 80. Today, internal surveys from some of the larger schools, like the Florence Academy of Art, have found that 20% of their student body discover them via the ARC website.
With this information I wondered what the impact of the ARC was on the (still?) trending moment of figurative painting in the mainstream contemporary art market. I asked Mr. Ross if he had any thoughts on this, and what he made of superstar figurative painters like Lisa Yuskavage or John Currin. (He wasn’t familiar with their work.)
When I asked what the future of the ARC looked like, they told me that the biggest thing was Kara Ross taking a leadership position at the organization. She intends to bring fresh energy and drive to the project, which has a new collaboration with Sotheby’s. Their twinned goals are to reach auction prices for contemporary realist masters that will shock the market and earn them the respect and attention of the art world at large.
Although there is much that I don’t agree with in ARC’s ideology, I have come to appreciate it on principle. There’s something weird and special about taking bold and concrete positions, and defining yourself as uncompromising. If they are successful in penetrating the higher-end market of collectors, I hope that they don’t lose sight of their roots.