American Academy in Rome/Vibrant retreat for US artists and scholars now searches for fiscal stability

ON an overcast Saturday, the windows in the west wing of the 50-room palazzo filter dim light into the library. The vault-ceilinged reading room, with its carved busts and ornate brass lamps, is silent. In the stacks below, among one of the world's finest collections of classics and architecture, a lone scholar sorts through books in a pool of light. The dining hall across the courtyard, by contrast, is awash with conversation -- musicians and art historians mingling with sculptors and archaeologists, discussing everything from shopping for shoes to the nature of artistic inspiration.

These two wings of the American Academy in Rome represent the balance that energizes this 91-year-old institution. A haven for select groups of visiting American scholars and artists, set in 10 acres of luxurious gardens high on the Janiculum overlooking Rome, it provides ample solitude for creative activity.

But it also provides rich soil for interchange and cross-fertilization among its 25 to 30 fellows -- throwing them into contact with one another and with what Hawthorne called ``the city of all time, and of all the world.''

Also energizing the academy, these days, is a newfound commitment to fiscal soundness. After a period of financial erosion and indifference to its public profile, the institution is at last shaking itself awake.

Not that its reputation has suffered. The academy, chartered by the US Congress in 1905, still provides much-coveted, year-long retreats for a handful of mid-career American artists and scholars (and their families) drawn from 11 disciplines. As winners of the academy's Rome Prize, they are given room, board, time, and what academy president Sophie Consagra calls ``the most beautiful studio they'll ever receive in their life'' to pursue their work in peace.

That doesn't mean isolation, however. ``The person who wants to bury himself for a year would be well advised to stay away from the academy,'' says Rome-based director James Melchert, a bearded, smiling sculptor who chaired the Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley, before taking his present position last July.

In an interview in his tapestried, high-ceilinged office here, he notes that ``the great value of the studio is having private space to retreat to.''

But he adds that ``the people who are drawn here, who end up with these fellowships -- what they have in common is a great curiosity.''

That, he feels, is the way the academy's founder, Charles Follen McKim, would have wanted it. Mr. McKim, partner in the architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White, ``really believed that young professionals had a great deal to learn from one another,'' Mr. Melchert says.

Over the years, that desire for interdisciplinary study within a classical context has led to the founding of two dozen national academies in Rome -- all, in a sense, modeled on the French Academy in Rome, founded in 1666 as a place to study the great examples of Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.

The American Academy, beginning in 1894 as a school for the study of architecture, broadened to include other arts in 1897. Shortly thereafter it merged with the American School of Classical Studies in Rome -- producing a unique hybrid of scholarhip and creative art.

``There is nothing [else] quite like it,'' says board chairman John W. Hyland Jr., a managing partner at Paine Webber in New York. The list of fellows, in fact, is something of a Who's Who of American arts and letters. It includes poets Archibald MacLeish, John Ciardi, Louis Simpson, and Richard Wilbur, sculptors Paul Manship and Sidney Waugh, and composers Samuel Barber and Roger Sessions.

``It's a fantastic opportunity,'' says New York-based composer Paul Moravec. Over an espresso after lunch, he recalls a recent series of evening talks given by various fellows. ``I was struck with the fact that when an architect talks about a building,'' Mr. Moravec says, ``he basically uses musical terms.''

In McKim's day, such enthusiasm was enough to open plenty of philanthropic coffers. At that time, the study of antiquity was held in high regard, and America, still emerging from frontier days, was rather self-consciously seeking lofty architectural models. At that time, too, one could live in Rome for 75 cents a day -- without a fire. Early financial backers included John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, Henry C. Frick, and the Carnegie family. By 1914 the academy was in stalled in its present neoclassical stone-and-stucco mansion designed by McKim, Meade & White.

In recent years, however, the academy has gone through what board chairman Hyland calls ``a submerged period.'' In 1976, as inflation shot the annual deficit into the $400,000 range, the directors were forced to halve the fellowship to one year.

But starting in the early 1980s the academy made strenuous efforts to get its finances in order -- and to enhance its public image. Under a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) launched in 1983, the academy has already completed nearly half of a $2 million campaign for the 100,000-volume library, considered one of the 10 best of its kind in the world.

Last year the Philip Morris company began helping promote the academy's yearly Rome Prize competition -- with the result that interest among potential fellows soared last October to a record 4,000 inquiries and 1,000 applicants for 30 slots.

And this fall, as part of a seven-week promotion of Italy, Bloomingdale's will feature the academy in displays in all its department stores.

But the deficit, although reduced to a more manageable $200,000 in the $1.8 million budget, still remains -- to the constant concern of Mrs. Consagra, the academy's first woman president. A $12 million endowment meets nearly half the yearly expenses, and support from NEH, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation covers some of the rest. To keep the academy afloat, she calls regularly on foundations, corporations, individuals, and governmen t agencies -- and finds the task demanding.

``They want head count,'' says Consagra, who, after four years as Rome-based director, now heads the institution from its New York office. American funding organizations, she explains, are often more willing to support a widely seen exhibition or a series of performances than a small group of mid-career professionals. She says they need to be shown that ``the real problem is not just getting the most people but getting the quality.''

In America, she says, there are ``not enough people addressing the spawning ground of thought and culture . . . the areas of retreat and respect for the creative process at its source.'' By contrast, she says, ``the local heroes in Italy are artists,'' noting that in Rome you can still trade a painting for a meal or pay the dentist with a sculpture.

Where will the academy's programs take it in the future? There is ongoing discussion about adding a prize for photography, film, or video art -- if a donor could be found to contribute the $500,000 endowment needed for a new fellowship.

And there is some discussion about returning to a longer fellowship period. ``I think the one-year fellowship is inadequate,'' says director Melchert.

Darby Scott, the professor in charge of the academy's Classical School, agrees. A former Rome Prize winner in archaeology, he takes fellows on historical tours of Rome and the rest of Italy. He worries, however, that with shorter fellowship periods there are more fellows ``working away in isolation because they only have so much time.''

Most fellows agree, however, that Rome itself is the real attraction.

``What is raw material in Rome,'' says fellow Robert Beaser, ``is above just about anything else you could find on earth.''

It shows you ``your place in cultural history,'' adds Mr. Beaser, a youthful composer. ``You begin to learn what distinguishes you as an American.''

Reviewing the strengths of the American Academy in 1962, writer Herbert Kubly spoke of the ``inspired indifference'' of the staff -- which, he said, helped produce a ``disciplined regularity'' among the fellows. Life at the academy, however, has not always been placid. During World War I a sculptor created a furor by keeping in his studio, among other things, a live horse.

The tale is still told of the excited gardener who uncovered fragments of glass in the academy garden. After examination by scholars in residence, they were exhibited as early Roman artifacts. On further study, however, they turned out to be pieces of vermouth bottles, chucked from academy windows by overzealous fellows.

Such embarrassments, however, were more than redressed when, in 1963, a team of archaeologists from the academy uncovered a pottery jar beneath a closet floor of an ancient Etruscan house north of Rome. In it were 2,004 Roman denarii, some of them fresh from the mint -- the largest find of coins ever uncovered by professional archaeologists in Italy.

The academy awards its Rome Prize in 10 fields: architecture, design, landscape architecture, painting, sculpture, musical composition, classical studies, art history, postclassical humanistic studies, and modern Italian studies.

In addition, it hosts an 11th fellowship in literature, awarded by the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters. Applications are available from the American Academy in Rome, 41 East 65th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

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