Louis Pedlar, who was strongly influenced by Earnest Elmo Calkins, initiated the Art Directors Club in 1920 in response to the uncertain relationship between advertising art and fine art. Pedlar brought together a group of art buyers, art department managers and layout artists to pool ideas and knowledge, and to investigate the idea that advertising could be judged by the same stringent standards as fine art.
Charter members of ADC included Richard Walsh, Stanford Briggs, Everett Currier and Cushman Parker, among other advertising, illustration and graphic arts forerunners.
They would meet at ADC’s original 1920 home, the Roof Tree Inn on West 28th Street, a common haunt of the mysterious Stowaways. Early members taught at the Society of Illustrators’ School of Disabled Soldiers. At that time, Art Directors were paid five to ten dollars an hour, and unconventional payment methods were common — including a lifetime supply of gloves paid by The Daniel Hays Company to 1925 Gold Medalist R. F. Heinrich.
When the club moved to the Art Center on East Sixty-fifth Street in 1921, luncheons, lectures, sketch classes and ongoing debates about art and commerce were the standard.
To “dignify the field of business art in the eyes of artists” and communicate the message that “artistic excellence is vitally necessary to successful advertising,” Earnest Calkins organized ADC’s first annual exhibition in 1921.
A jury of distinguished members judged entries according to aesthetic merits rather than effectiveness of persuasion. So began nearly a century (and running) of leaders in visual communications selecting the world’s best design and advertising art.
Paul Manship, creator of the Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Plaza, designed ADC’s original award medal — a medallion depicting Apollo on a Pegasus suspended in the center of a transparent Lucite Cube. In the 1970s, the Manship Medallion was replaced by Gene Federico’s solid, streamlined Cube, which has become a symbol of ADC.
Around the time that ADC moved to the Architectural League on East 40th Street in 1929 (where it remained until 1962), numerous renowned artists were regular contributors to advertising and design. Pablo Picasso’s work was featured in an ad for De Beers Consolidated Mines; Dr. Seuss illustrated for Flit, the insect killer; and Georgia O’Keeffe was sent to Hawaii by Hawaiian Pineapple to do a series of paintings.
Women were not allowed to join the club until 1943, putting an end to the regular nude-model sketch sessions at the club. In 1950, Margaret Mead spoke about the meaning and function of advertising symbols, and in 1960, Salvador Dali screened “Chaos and Creation,” in which actors are submerged in popcorn and then showered with chocolate syrup and icing.
From 1962 until 1971, ADC occupied the penthouse of the DePinna Building on Fifth Avenue until that building was sold to the Iranian Pahlavi Foundation. During these years, notable events included a special lecture in 1962 by Oleg Cassini, the fashion designer responsible for creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s state wardrobe. At the 1966 ADC Conference Luncheon, the President’s Medal was awarded to Duke Ellington, composer, arranger, bandleader and traveling diplomat for the State Department in its cultural exchange program. NBC televised the entire event. International members were invited to join the Club in 1966.
When ADC moved to the penthouse of the Newsweek Building on Madison Avenue in 1971, the going rate for art directors was two to three hundred dollars a day. Beginning in the 1970s, the film industry began to have a presence at ADC. Film director Otto Preminger presented the Hall of Fame award to Saul Bass — an especially notable event since Bass had created the animated title sequence for Preminger’s great film, The Man with the Golden Arm. And after the club moved to the Flatiron District in 1986, Robert Benton, screenwriter of Bonnie and Clyde, discussed making the leap from art direction to film direction.
In the fine arts realm, artists Christo and Peter Max were featured speakers at ADC in 1980. Photographer Albert Watson and writer Avery Corman were featured speakers in 1994. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, served on the ADC symposium, “Dreamgirls: 100 Years of Images of Women in Advertising” in 1995. By the 1990s, an art director’s average pay was $1,500 a day.
The Art Directors Club moved to its new home at 106 West 29th Street in the fall of 2000. This location hosts grand exhibitions of international art, as well as lectures from industry greats like George Lois, James Victore, Wieden+Kennedy, R/GA, Gary Baseman and more.