Shortcut to paradise, getaway drug, center for thinking, arts and creativity: which one is it? On Wednesday night, after 25 years of leadership as CEO of the American Academy in Rome, Adele Chatfield-Taylor passed the baton to Mark Robbins. It was a big moment. The Metropolitan Club was packed with admirers, board members, Rome Prize Winners, affiliated fellows and people like me, who had been a visiting artist or scholar at AAR.
Ms. Chatfield-Taylor spoke eloquently about the history of AAR: its ascendance, decline and reemergence. There is no doubt that she is responsible for bringing the AAR back to life. In 2013, it’s to hard to imagine how far AAR had fallen. Condemned by Roman authorities for its out-of-date wiring; many parts of the building had to be closed and other rooms barely had heat. Broken plumbing and cracked skylights were a regular feature. Ms. Chatfield-Taylor set all that right. Unlike many other institutes, AAR had no mothership. No university to absorb its debts or raise money on its behalf. Chatfield-Taylor found donors and supporters. Little by little the building and grounds came back to life.
Why does this matter? Some people might consider this kind of institution elitist and irrelevant. These days some artists are as entrepreneurial as anyone in Silicon Valley. For those of us, who have spent time at the American Academy, a kind of bond forms. If anyone had said that to me before I went to AAR; I would have said that was ridiculous. Even a short stay of two weeks gets under your skin. I didn’t realize until I returned home, how deep my feelings about the Academy were. I was aware of my good fortune when I was in residence, but I was unaware that I would feel a debt… a debt of gratitude. Mark Robbins, the new Executive Director of AAR has his work cut out for him. He was a Rome Prize Winner in 1996. “I’m hoping to broaden people’s understanding of the institution, adding, “for artists and scholars, of the continuing importance of Rome as a way of thinking about the contemporary world, but also for the wider public, internationally, to understand the American Academy in Rome as a center for thinking, arts and creativity.” I will be interested to see what changes he makes and what he keeps the same.