What is the Art Renewal Center?

In the early 1970s, the great melodramatic artistic debates of the 20th century were running out of steam: abstraction versus representation, competence versus theory, popular versus elite. But for New Jersey-based food maker, art collector and millionaire Fred Ross, the debates never ended. It represents a crossroads in the history of art, far from the mainstream.

Mr. Ross is the president of an organization called Art Renewal Center (ARC) which is one of the biggest nodes of 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, just like in the olden days. At a glance, it looks like a tiered marketing system, with its membership fees and tiered ranking system. However, it is not, at least not more than the conventional art world.

I caught up with Ross and his daughter Kara to discuss the origins of the ARC and to see what I could learn about that defining, yet largely forgotten, moment. For Mr. Ross, it began with an encounter in 1977 at the Clark Art Institute, where he first saw “Nymphs and Satyr” (1873) by William Adolphe Bouguereau. He had previously collected old masterpieces and had a master’s degree in art education from Columbia. The fact that he had never seen or heard of Bouguereau before this time awakened him to the perceived rip-off of modern art. He viewed modernism and its mutations as a price-fixing system run by a small but powerful elite group of gatekeepers, who had severed Western man’s ties to meaningful traditions and values, mostly expressed through figurative painting and sculpture.

Fred Ross at home (2022) (photo by the author)

There was also 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 a hit and critically acclaimed by readers outside the art world. It captured the feelings of a populist and silent majority, those too embarrassed to admit they didn’t “get it”. Wolfe was partly targeting fellow conservative Hilton Kramer, who in his review of the 1974 exhibit seven realists at Yale University, claimed that “although realism flourishes, it continues to do so in an intellectual vacuum” and “lacks a convincing theory”. Although the art world unanimously rejected the text, the popularity of its central ideas never waned.

Another pivotal moment occurred for Mr. Ross at the same time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the newly constructed Andre Meyer Galleries in 1980. The new galleries were large enough to include a comprehensive overview of the Met’s collection of European works, including the Academy of the 19th century that had been in storage for most of the 20th century. Academic postmodernism, it seems, had become an unlikely ally of Mr. Ross’ premodernism. In the New York Times Hilton Kramer wrote that these paintings should “stay buried”, because “it is the fate 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 a simulacrum of life in its moldy remains.” Taking a cue from Wolfe, Mr. Ross stepped in and pulled out his Times advertising.

Fred Ross’ ad rebuttal to Hilton Kramer in the New York Times (photo by Fred Ross)

This voice became Mr. Ross’s signature style, and by the time ARC went live in 2002, his gritty, wholesome 19th-century parlor rhetoric became a key part of the message’s viral popularity. BOW. I remember how quotes from his essays, like the “Great 20th Century Art Scam”, were commonplace in the mid-2000s on forums such as where many lone artists found themselves in community for the first time. Many of these artists were students in the growing studio system.

Workshops are (usually) non-accredited art schools that are much cheaper than traditional four-year colleges and focus primarily on technical training in drawing, painting, or sculpture. Since the ARC began forming its network of workshops in 2002, the number of workshops operating around the world has grown from 15 to over 80. Today, internal surveys of some of the larger schools, like the Florence Academy of Art, revealed that 20% of their student body discover them via the ARC website.

With this information, I wondered what impact ARC had on the now (still?) trend for figurative painting in the mainstream contemporary art market. I asked Mr. Ross if he had any thoughts on this and what he thought of superstar figurative painters like Lisa Yuskavage or John Currin. (He did not know their work.)

Fred Ross, “Opening the Car Door” (1996) oil on canvas (photo by the author)

When I asked what the future of ARC looked like, they told me the most important thing was that Kara Ross had taken a leadership position within the organization. She intends to bring new energy and dynamism to the project, which benefits from a new collaboration with Sotheby’s. Their twin goals are to achieve auction prices for contemporary realist masters that will shock the market and earn them the respect and attention of the art world at large.

While there are many things I disagree with about the RCAF ideology, I have come to appreciate it on principle. There is something strange and special about taking bold and concrete positions, and defining yourself as intransigent. If they succeed in penetrating the high-end collector market, I hope they don’t lose sight of their roots.