Advocates for excellence in the urban environment

The Fine Arts Federation of New York was established in 1895 as a unique advocate for design excellence in New York City and beyond.

The Federation is comprised of member organizations of diverse constituencies with professional expertise in public art, architecture, landscape architecture, planning, urban design, and open space in New York City. Today, the organization is the only alliance of its kind acting on behalf of the city’s art and design professions in support of a well-designed public realm.

The Federation’s founding mission is “to ensure united action by the Art Societies of New York in all matters affecting their common interests, and to foster and protect the artistic interests of the community.”

Born at a time of powerful urban aspirations, the Federation embraced the ideals of the then-flourishing City Beautiful movement, which sought to integrate architecture, landscape architecture, transportation, and public monuments to enhance the quality of urban life. The Federation thus took up many concerns of its constituent organizations such as the Municipal Art Society and the National Sculpture Society (both formed in 1893), as well as The Architectural League (1881) and the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects (1894, now Van Alen Institute) in creating a harmonious civic landscape.

From its inception, the Federation championed artistic quality in public works, advocated for urban beautification, and embraced the broader causes of historic preservation, municipal planning, and civic culture. Throughout its history, the Federation has helped shape the city through diverse activities, from consulting on the siting of public monuments to joining with other groups to secure municipal advances such as the establishment of New York City’s Planning Commission in 1936 and passage of the city’s 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law. The Federation has also encouraged the designation of historic districts and individual landmarks, developed design competitions for municipal projects, and fought for world-class streets and public spaces.

In 1898, the Greater New York Charter established the Art Commission of the City of New York, the municipal agency that reviews and approves works of art and architecture for city-owned property. Now known as the Public Design Commission, the agency’s purview in the twenty-first century encompasses defining elements of the public landscape, from bridges and ferry terminals to parks, plazas, and streetscapes. The Fine Arts Federation was empowered by the charter to nominate highly qualified New York City residents to serve on the Commission for non-salaried, three-year terms. Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor from nominees provided by the Federation for the posts of painter, sculptor, landscape architect, architect, and laymen.

More than a century of the Federation’s records are held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, offering insights into how the aesthetics of the built environment have been forged, contested, appraised, and sustained in one of the world’s most diverse cities. Throughout, the Federation has remained committed to the value of public design expertise in building an inspiring public realm, and to a common interest in the civic and social fabric of the city.