The American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor society of leading architects, artists, composers and writers, announced 33 new members on Friday as part of an effort to expand and diversify.
Among them are the painter Mark Bradford, the poet Joy Harjo, the artist Betye Saar and the composer Wynton Marsalis and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Founded in 1898, the institution had capped membership at 250 since 1908; members are elected for life and pay no dues. In addition to adding 33 members, the academy announced it is going to grow to 300 by 2025. Its move to diversify comes as the arts reckon with issues of race, inclusion and social justice.
“The board of directors is committed to creating a more inclusive membership that truly represents America and believes that expanding the Academy’s membership will allow the Academy to more readily achieve that goal,” the organization said in a statement.
Early on after its establishment, the organization — which now administers more than 70 awards and prizes, totaling more than $1 million — was mainly made up of white men, like Theodore Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent and Mark Twain. Previously, new members could only be elected after the death of existing members.
“That the doors of the institution have opened to a more representative membership is symbolic of a cultural shift that is long overdue,” Harjo said in an email to The New York Times.
“Every culture has contributed to the restoration, remaking and revisioning of this country,” she added. “Together we are a rich, dynamic story field of every shade, tone and rhythm.”
The academy is ushering in its most diverse group as institutions across the nation have reckoned with racial justice, equity and inclusion in the last year. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a $5.3 million program to distribute curated collections of books to prisons across the country last June and later pledged $250 million to help reimagine the country’s monuments and memorials to include the histories of people who have been marginalized. In January, the Library of Congress also announced a Mellon-funded initiative to expand its collection and encourage diverse outreach for future librarians and archivists.
Employees at other arts organizations are also airing their issues with the gatekeepers of high arts: a coalition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and other New York-based cultural institutions issued an open letter on social media regarding the “unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” last year, demanding “the immediate removal of ineffective, biased Administrative and Curatorial leadership,” among other requests.
The academy only includes American architects, artists, writers and composers. Among the new additions, who are not in these categories, are honorary members, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Spike Lee, Unsuk Chin and Balkrishna Doshi.
All of the new members will be inducted on May 19 via a virtual award ceremony.