The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1904 as a highly selective group of 50 members within a larger organization called the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Over the years the two groups functioned separately with different memberships, budgets, and boards of directors. In 1993 the two groups finally agreed to form a single group of 250 members under the name of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Members are chosen from the fields of literature, music, and the fine arts. Members must be native or naturalized citizens of the United States. They are elected for life and pay no dues. New members are elected only upon the death of other members.
As is the case with the other honorary societies, there are no official statistics on the current racial makeup of the AAAL membership. However, independent analysis of the membership list by JBHE concludes that, at the present time, Blacks make up about 5 percent of the total. Among the Black members of the society are Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rita Dove, Toni Morrison, and Jamaica Kincaid.
This year 10 new members were elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Kara Walker is the sole African American among the group. Walker is a native of Stockton, California. She is a professor of visual arts at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York City. Walker is a graduate of the Atlanta College of Art. She earned a master of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Her work is included in numerous museums and public collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery in London, the Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee in Rome, and Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt.