NEW YORK – One of the country's oldest cultural instititutions, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is undergoing some of its biggest changes in more than a century.
For the first time since 1908, the academy is expanding its core membership, from 250 artists in literature, music and art and architecture, to 300 by 2025. And this year's inductees, 33 of them, are the largest and most diverse group in recent memory. They range from U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo and author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to jazz great Wynton Marsalis and visual artist Betye Saar, who at 94 is the oldest new inductee since Roger Angell was voted in at 94 in 2015.
New members announced Friday also include poet Kevin Young, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith; New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als, pianist-composer Anthony Davis, visual artist Faith Ringgold and architect Walter Hood, whose work is currently featured in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America.”
Spike Lee has been named an honorary member, along with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Korean composer Unsuk Chin and the Indian architect Balkrishna “B.V.” Doshi.
“We're expanding the membership so that it is more clearly represenatative of this country,” says the academy's president, architect Billie Tsien. “Also, it's a matter of numbers. When the academy was first established the population it was much smaller. Now there are more people, and more kinds of people.”
The May induction ceremony, when members usually gather at the academy’s beaux arts complex in Upper Manhattan, will be held virtually because of the coronavirus.
The academy is an honorary society founded in 1898 and once so restrictive that for decades members were almost entirely white, Christian men. Traditions can be hard to break because current members vote for new ones — openings are created when a member dies — but the academy has become far more inclusive over the past 50 years, with Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Carrie Mae Weems and Chinary Ung among those selected.
Harjo, the first Native American to be appointed U.S. poet laureate, said she looked forward to having an influence on future academy choices.