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Living at the Club

Michael Shane Neal is just the third artist in 117 years to occupy this studio at the National Arts Club.

The Studio: The double-height main room gets northern light. The two hanging lanterns are original to the building. Before Michael Shane Neal moved in, in 2020, they were discarded, then found in the basement on their way to a dumpster, and Neal salvaged them. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Studio: The double-height main room gets northern light. The two hanging lanterns are original to the building. Before Michael Shane Neal moved in, in 2020, they were discarded, then found in the basement on their way to a dumpster, and Neal salvaged them. Photo: Annie Schlechter

How a kid from Nashville, Tennessee, lucked out,” Michael Shane Neal tells me as we sit in the northern afternoon light of his double-height art studio behind the National Arts Club that he was granted possession of during the pandemic. The club, founded in 1898, occupies two former mansions overlooking Gramercy Park: No. 14 and No. 15, both built in the 1840s and merged into one for Samuel Tilden in the 1880s (Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central Park, created a new façade). In 1906, George B. Post designed the Arts Club Studio Building in Tilden’s former rear garden. There some members of the club rent apartments in which they can live and work. The final step in the tenant selection process is having their name picked out of a hat.

Neal’s name was picked in 2020, when many of the building’s residents had fled the city. He landed the space of his mentor, the artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, who had lived and worked there for 66 years until shortly before his death in 2019. A phone call let him know he had won the prize: “Mr. Neal, you were the only member who came for the viewing, and so therefore you were awarded the studio. Your name was the only name in the hat.”

Neal, a Nashville native who splits his time between New York and his hometown, is a portrait painter. His subjects have included Representative John Lewis (Neal’s painting of the late civil-rights activist hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington), Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and actor Morgan Freeman. He is only the third artist to inhabit this apartment; Frank Vincent DuMond was the original resident, followed by Kinstler.

Many of the studios were divided up during the Depression, including this one: It lost part of what had been its second floor. In addition to Neal’s bedroom downstairs, there is a smaller room upstairs that his daughter stays in when she visits. The stairs up to the balcony were added in the 1930s.

Besides the works in progress on easels by the window, there’s an aged palette that belonged to John Singer Sargent, who was a member of the Players, a club next door. It has been passed down through time to different artists; Kinstler passed it on to Neal six months before his death. “It was almost like an otherworldly experience,” Neal says of walking into his studio for the first time. “Really, history had been made over a century.”

Neal paints using a replica of John Singer Sargent’s palette. His double-sided easel, left, belonged to the artist Leopold Seyffert. “His grandson wanted me to have it,” he says. “They don’t make these anymore.” The large painting is of Sarah Perot. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The stairs were added in the 1930s when the apartment, which used to be larger, was divided. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Neal found his English barley-twist slant-front desk in an antiques store in Savannah, Georgia. It sits in his bedroom. Photo: Annie Schlechter
A detail of Neal’s bedroom with a late-19th-century burled-oak dresser. The sculpture is by Marc Mellon, and the pillows are covered in Ruby Wool Plaid. Photo: Annie Schlechter
A 19th-century French settee in the corner of the studio with an English Victorian shaving mirror on the left and Neal’s portrait of Kinstler at top right. Photo: Annie Schlechter

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His Name Was Picked Out of a Hat to Get This Apartment