A social phenomenon


Dear Artist,

Last night Betty Piderman of Kitsilano, B.C., Canada wrote, “I was wondering about the Monday Night Art Club you mentioned recently. Can anybody join? Is it membership only? Is there a fee? Where is it held? I would be interested to find out more.”

The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875, 1876 by Charles West Cope RA (1811 - 1890)

The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875, 1876
by Charles West Cope RA (1811 – 1890)

Thanks, Betty. There are 135,000 art clubs in North America, and while it’s primarily an American invention, they now exist all over the world. They don’t all meet on Mondays, of course, nor will they carry on every week, but they have become so popular that they might be seen as a sociological phenomenon on the scale of Rotary. In my experience, anybody can join. They’re generally looking for members, and they’ll take anyone with about fifty bucks. Some groups just want to paint or sketch together while others have complex entry procedures, work in specific media, hire speakers, critics and demo-doers, hold art shows and put on scintillating social events. This time of year they tend to have their Christmas parties, which require quite a bit of effort, making them a positive hazard to painting.

The Thorn, 1866 by Charles West Cope

The Thorn, 1866
by Charles West Cope

Clubs happen in community halls, church basements and disused churches. They generally have a life cycle of about forty years, but there are some art clubs and associations that have been around for more than a century. They are often 80% women, and 18% widows. (Several times I’ve asked for a show of hands.) Some of these widows can be Merry Widows. The main downfall of art clubs, in my estimation, is the shortage of input from youth. There’s no doubt art clubs serve social needs and give a sense of community. It’s fun to hang out with like-minded folks. Also, competition can be stimulating. In my experience, many promising artists have cycled into clubs and cycled out again in short order. This is possibly due to the realization that becoming a pro is really a loner’s game.

Nevertheless, clubs are part of the greater brotherhood and sisterhood of artists. They are living witness to the democratization of art — people sighting higher ideals and working toward them. Through the slings and arrows of group and professional crits, many artists have found art clubs to be valuable stepping stones to success. Others just enjoy the ambience. Our world needs more art clubs and fewer gun clubs.

Unwanted Advice, n.d. by Charles West Cope

Unwanted Advice, n.d.
by Charles West Cope

Best regards,


PS: “Why would I want to join a club that would encourage someone like myself to become a member?” (Groucho Marx)

Esoterica: Over the years I’ve offered suggestions for the revival of certain moribund clubs. One of my suggestions was to insist that members bring three new paintings each week. If they don’t bring any, they’re kicked out of the club — losing their annual fees and all. Great vitality would prevail among the remaining members. While this suggestion has been considered and discussed at annual meetings, it has never, to my knowledge, been tried. “We’d be closed down in three weeks,” I was told. “And there’d be no more cookies.”

Spirit of the Well, n.d. by Charles West Cope

Spirit of the Well, n.d.
by Charles West Cope

This letter was originally published as “A social phenomenon” on December 22, 2006.

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  1. I am currently a member of two groups that exist virtually. One is Louise Fletcher’s Art Tribe ( about $20.00 Canadian a month) and Nicholas Wilton’s Art 2 Life Facebook group. Both are a great source of resources and community, in this time of pandemic. One can participate as little or as much as one wants.
    Both of these artists offer unpretentious support and encouragement to keep creating..

  2. Sharon, thank you.
    I would love to be part of a smaller art club but when I tried to find an art club online I was of course directed to the big guys with millions of members. So this specific information may be helpful.

  3. I love this letter. I find it especially amusing today thinking how when Robert first posted this letter, I was very much a pawn in the cerebral control that art clubs offered. Looking back, I wonder how I got reeled in so badly. I remember thinking I had no choice but to follow the pack. If I stepped away I would appear angry and bitter over the way “they” ran the art game. I was too young to join an art club, so young I didn’t realize it. Yes, I made friendships and learned somethings about art, but it wasn’t really until I stepped away that I found my own way of thinking about what I wanted to paint. I am so much more in touch with my own artist’s soul working on my own now, not striving for approval, not picking out the darts of criticisms that perforated my sense of worth. Maybe competition makes people step up and get going, but looking back, I see so much damage that it does to artists. Oh well, today is a good day, and I still make good cookies. :) Thank you, Sara, and best of the season to you!!

    • I am a member of a virtual art group. We do not have too much structure. Anyone can bring up a topic or show something he/she is worked mg on. People in this group have amazingly broad interests, reading habits, must cal tastes, and outlooks on life. I have never participated in a session that didn’t give me something new and challenging to do honk about. Perhaps the informal and virtual format is better than a structured form.

  4. I am on the executive of two of these groups. One you are juried into and one anyone can join. Both havre pluses and minuses but I find that 20 percent of the people do 80% of the work. We have fun and developing relationships that extend outside the groups and these are where you develop the most. Smaller groups form for paint outs, critiques and some amazing discussion. Just saying you get out what you put in but sometimes it is like working for a club and not yourself. Be careful and set limits.

  5. Linda
    I am a part of a mixed media (mainly fabric) art group. We have been together for 20 years with the almost same 10 members. We meet once a month for a pot luck lunch at each others homes. We have two very successful shows a year. Our spring show is held in a deconsecrated very old church and we try to get the local fawn lilies (Easter Lilies) to bloom in the ancient grave yard when our show is open for ten lovely days. This group ranges in ages from the 50ish to 90ish amazing adventuresome and constantly creative artists. We all acknowledge that we are blessed to have this constant creative and supported camaraderie.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Evening-Flight-24-x-18-OC-wpcf_300x300.jpgEvening Flight
oil on canvas
24 x 18 inches

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Essentially I am representational painter, with a real appreciation for the design aspects of abstract art.  By emphasizing strong shape relationships and connecting bands of textural color, I am able to paint the natural world in two dimensional patterns while striving to create interesting three dimensional compositions.  Andrew Wyeth, a realist who has influenced my work, painted very abstract watercolors that helped him explore the possibilities for unusual compositions.  Like him, I value the drama of a strong composition, solid drawing, complex textures, and sumptuous, rich color while attempting to ground the painting’s design in essential, free form shapes.  Past Masters who have shaped my artistic direction are: Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn, and the California impressionists. Richard Schmid is a contemporary painter whose instruction has contributed greatly to my ability to capture the light, intimacy, and subtle textures of the hidden landscapes.
I have found painting landscapes in the field to be an adventure of the mind, spirit, and body. It is a personal record of a distinct moment in time that captures an emotional response to a physical reality. Nature is exciting, unforgiving, yet always spiritually rewarding. I am grateful to be able to share this natural beauty with fellow wanderers hoping to discover those special moments.

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