A.I.R. Gallery: A Feminist Take on the SoHo-Style Alternative by Kate Moomaw

Posted August 05, 2010 by admin

A.I.R. Gallery: A Feminist Take on the SoHo-Style Alternative

by Kate Moomaw

In September of 1972, a new artist-run, cooperative gallery opened on Wooster Street in SoHo. By this time, it was not so unusual that artists rather than dealers were running the space or that paying artist members financed it. But the new gallery, named A.I.R. after the ubiquitous signs in SoHo indicating "artists in residence," was unique in that its members were all women - not an accident by any means. This was the first cooperative gallery in the country to show the work of women artists exclusively. Its opening did not take place without the criticisms and backhanded compliments of the gallery's fair share of naysayers. Certain comments received that evening by the gallery's founders are indicative of just what conditions in the art world led these artists to create A.I.R. A man impressed by the work he saw concluded to A.I.R. founder Barbara Zucker, "Okay, you did it: you found 20 good women artists, but that's about it."(1) The artists who founded A.I.R. set out to raise the visibility and stature of women artists so that it would become impossible to justify making such statements. Their strategy for doing so deviated from the tactics of earlier feminist art groups, such as Women Artists in Revolution and the Ad Hoc Women's Committee of the Art Workers' Coalition, which engaged in protests and demonstrations to achieve similar goals. Instead, A.I.R. made use of a critical mechanism established by a community of artist-run exhibition spaces that had grown up in SoHo in the first years of the 1970s.

Artists Barbara Zucker and Susan Williams first formulated the idea for a women's cooperative gallery in 1971. They met in the late 1960s in the context of the women's movement. Both artists had participated in consciousness-raising groups, during which small groups of women would share their personal experiences in order to develop a sense of the common experience of women in an oppressive society. These meetings, operating on the credo that the personal is political, were a mainstay of the women's movement. From these loose gatherings of women artists in the late 1960s, Zucker and Williams went on to participate in the Ad Hoc Women's Committee of the Art Workers' Coalition. Led by Lucy Lippard, Faith Ringgold, and Poppy Johnson, the Ad Hoc Committee carried out activities similar to the AWC's protests of New York museums but focused specifically on the concerns of women artists, whose rights and status in museums had been sidelined in the greater AWC. Around the same time, Zucker and Williams approached Lucy Lippard in search of advice on establishing their gallery.(2)

The concerns cited by Zucker for starting A.I.R. were that there were not enough galleries where working artists could exhibit and that the situation was even worse for women artists. For herself, Zucker wished to stop spending her time in a futile search for gallery representation in a sexist art world and to have a place to show her work on a reliable schedule.(3) According to one account, Zucker and Williams initially wanted to start a co-op inclusive of both men and women, but their involvement with the women's movement encouraged them to give the gallery a feminist bearing.(4) At least two of the artists introduced to them by Lucy Lippard, Dotty Attie and Nancy Spero, were dedicated feminists, and they no doubt reinforced this stance. By 1972 when the members of A.I.R. were articulating the aims of the gallery, the mission had expanded from establishing a place for artists to show to giving women a place to show that would allow them to develop their work free from the manipulations of a commercial gallery setting, while simultaneously raising the visibility and status of women artists in the art world.(5) The greater aim of the gallery was, not surprisingly, closely aligned with that of the Ad Hoc Committee. However, the members of the gallery sought to achieve it by acting through different means on a different target, the gallery system rather than museums. At the same time, unlike the Ad Hoc Committee or the AWC, A.I.R. provided a much-needed and immediate service to women artists: a gallery of their own.

Zucker, Williams, Attie, Spero, Mary Grigoriadis, and Maude Boltz formed the core membership of A.I.R. They spent the first few months of 1972 gathering the fourteen other founding members of the gallery. During this time, they visited studios of women working in New York and poured over the Women's Slide Registry, a compilation of slides gathered by the Ad Hoc Committee from women artists around the country. The selection committee sought work that they respected by women artists in some way amenable to the aims of the gallery. The candidates' politics and personalities were not the primary consideration for selection, and, accordingly, the final twenty members were a diverse group with varied interests in participating in A.I.R. Once the membership was established, the group immediately set out to acquire a space for the gallery and to incorporate as a non-profit organization eligible for aid from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The members contributed more or less equally to completing these tasks, paying the rent for the gallery on Wooster Street, and renovating the space.(6)

Early on in 1972, the membership formulated the structure by which the gallery would run. Members were required to pay monthly dues, contribute to the overhead costs of starting the gallery, attend meetings, serve on committees, and sit in the gallery a certain number of hours every month. Initially, all of the gallery's operations and activities were to be carried out by the members themselves, without the interference of a manager or board of directors. In return, each member received a one-artist show every other year and was eligible to participate in group shows. Members also conceived of the gallery as serving a broader community and thus established a series of public programs on Monday nights, which included talks, panel discussions, workshops, slide and video screenings, and the like.(7) Changes in the gallery's structure and programming took place over the years, but for at least the first five years of A.I.R., the gallery ran by the specifications set out in 1972. And it did so with a great degree of respect from the art community. Its shows were regularly reviewed in the newspapers and major art periodicals, and it had supporters among critics and other established art world figures, for example Lucy Lippard, Marcia Tucker, Donald Kuspit, and Lawrence Alloway, who frequently participated in Monday night programs. A.I.R. has often been cited as a place that was not to be missed among the SoHo galleries,(8) and its prominence is demonstrated by the fact that it was emulated by such women's galleries as SoHo 20 in New York, and ARC in Chicago.(9) In addition, A.I.R. distinguishes itself as one of the few cooperative galleries begun in New York in the early 1970s still in existence over 30 years later.

A.I.R. was by no means the first artist-run gallery or cooperative to open in SoHo. By 1972, the cooperative 55 Mercer, which inspired Zucker and Williams' idea, had been running for 3 years, as had 112 Greene Street. Many examples existed of how to structure a cooperative, and other artists had already recognized the benefits of incorporating their organizations. And thus it was possible for the members of A.I.R. to set up a workable structure for the gallery from the very beginning by drawing on the experiences of others. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of conditions converged to allow a burgeoning of artist-run exhibition spaces in downtown New York. Cheap real estate in SoHo allowed artists to live there and support themselves and also enabled them to rent exhibition spaces. Throughout the 1970s, the cheap commercial loft spaces were, in fact, available as housing for artists only.(10) Naturally, the neighborhood served as an artists' gathering point until the real estate market went sky-high in the late 1970s. The sense of community among artists downtown combined with the late 1960s atmosphere of social and political activism to encourage artists to organize and form their own institutions. Furthermore, the early 1970s comprised the heyday of public funding for the arts in the United States and particularly in New York, where NYSCA had a strong funding program for arts organizations but not individuals.(11)

Implicit or explicit in the aims of the artist-run, non-profit spaces was a critique of the commercial gallery system that functioned (and still functions) as the primary apparatus for the exhibition of new art. Though the artist-run spaces diverged from one another in significant ways, to some degree, they all had this critique in common, if only through their very existence as another venue for exhibition. In A.I.R.'s 1972 "Proposal," a document that sums up the gallery's raison d'ĂȘtre, the founding members stated their dissatisfaction with the commercial gallery system and its treatment of women artists: "Statistics show that the commercial gallery in New York City is almost exclusively devoted to the showing of works by male artists...In the face of this...many women don't see themselves as a part of a clearly male system."(12) Not only were the members appalled by the under-representation of women artists in galleries, but they also accused commercial galleries of stifling the abilities and creativity of women artists by forcing them to fit the mold of saleable artwork in order to be shown at all. A.I.R. was formulated as an antidote to the situation: "The A.I.R. gallery will offer exhibition opportunities in an environment independent of commercial pressure. By showing women's art of very high quality, saleable or unsaleable, permanent or transitory, our gallery will afford a wider view of the complete range of the art field than is currently available to the general public."(13) In other words, the gallery sought to challenge the commercial system's taste-making role by providing a venue for progressive art by women.

Considering the members' objections to the commercial gallery system, the form the gallery took is somewhat counterintuitive. In many respects, A.I.R.'s space and exhibition style emulated the commercial galleries. 112 Greene Street, perhaps the best known of the early 1970s artist-run spaces, occupied a raw, industrial space, in which exhibiting artists were given free rein to intervene in the architecture: cutting holes in walls, digging into the ground, and interacting with the environment in other ways not possible in the commercial galleries. A.I.R. on the other hand resided in a traditional, white-walled, wood-floored gallery that had none of the look of an "alternative" space. The gallery ran on a tight exhibition schedule, and members sent out professional exhibition announcements for their shows. Again and again, members insisted on "professionalism" and "quality" in the gallery's exhibitions and operations. They wished to be taken seriously by the art community, and this was in fact essential to the gallery's aim of improving the status of women in the art world.(14) If the gallery were seen as amateurish or even "alternative" in a pejorative so would be those represented by the gallery, namely, women artists as a group. The members of A.I.R. did not, as a whole, wish to take down the entirety of the art world or to deconstruct and reformulate exhibition practices. Their critiques were specific and specifically targeted. By emulating the commercial galleries in some ways, while deviating strongly from them in others, A.I.R. was strategically designed to set off just the right set of contrasts to enact its critique.

The most radical aspects of the artist-run exhibition spaces were their economic structures and their empowerment of artists to take charge of what they produced and how they displayed it. Granted, if artists wished to produce for the market, there was nothing inherent in the artist-run spaces to stop them from doing so. Artist-run spaces were powerless to remove market pressures from an art world existing, as it was, in the American capitalist economy. However, the spaces did provide artists with the option, which had not existed before, to ignore the whims of the market and to still exhibit and enter art world discourse. Here lies the common, activist ground between a gallery such as A.I.R. and a space such as 112 Greene Street with its contrasting physical appearance and independent audience and set of participants. The fact that A.I.R. and 112 Greene both showed artists with ambitions to exhibit in commercial galleries left the spaces susceptible to acting as stepping stones to or gatekeepers for commercial galleries.(15) If they did indeed act as such at times, they did not act merely as such in the early 1970s. At least for a finite period, the confluence of spaces such as A.I.R. and 112 Greene comprised a formidable challenge to the commercial galleries as the locus of the most innovative ideas and new work. At the same time, the artist-run spaces served community and support roles not taken up by commercial galleries.

A.I.R. maintained a high level of artistic activity for several years, displaying important work by well-known artists into the late 1970s. Nancy Spero's Torture of Women in 1976 was one of the most reviewed and highest regarded of the gallery's exhibitions. Spero's show is an example of just what A.I.R. made possible for women artists; it allowed its members to display work that was political, confrontational, uncomfortable, personal, and/or difficult to classify in terms of style or medium. Furthermore, the gallery gave its members the opportunity to receive recognition for such work. Other A.I.R. notables who took advantage of these opportunities include Sylvia Sleigh, Dotty Attie, Rachel bas-Cohain, Sari Dienes, Agnes Denes, and Howardena Pindell. Mary Beth Edelson was also an active member of the gallery, where she exhibited installations such as her 1977 "Memorials to the 9 Million Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era." In 1978, she was responsible for bringing Ana Mendieta to A.I.R., the starting point for her career in New York.(16)

Alongside its participation in the greater arts community, A.I.R. was a gathering point for feminists in the arts. Feminist publications, such as Womanart and the Feminist Art Journal covered exhibitions and events at A.I.R., and the gallery hosted many panel discussions, which often confronted critics, scholars, and other art world figures with feminist perspectives.(17) A.I.R.'s members contributed to efforts to gain recognition for women artists worldwide and throughout history by organizing exhibitions of work by non-members. In addition to their own solo and group shows, they organized exhibitions such as "Combative Acts, Profiles, and Voices: An Exhibition of Women Artists from Paris" in 1976 and a historical show of Depression-era women artists, which took place at Vassar College, also in 1976. And to round out the gallery's feminist activities, the members started up outreach programs to young artists, including Mary Beth Edelson's One on One program, in which art critics gave individual critiques to unaffiliated artists, and an apprenticeship program that paired A.I.R. members with younger, less established artists.(18)

In statements, members often cite the importance of A.I.R. as a place for mutual support and exchange of ideas among women artists. Yet invariably, in their accounts of A.I.R., members recall competitiveness among those involved and the difficulty of running the organization in a democratic fashion with so many varied interests.(19) Looking back on the beginnings of A.I.R. after she had left the gallery, Barbara Zucker described it as "The Great Mother herself - both the carnivore and the protectress."(20) What these accounts serve to highlight is that A.I.R.'s achievements and those of its members were hard won. To some extent, members competed with each other because resources were tight, and they felt much was at stake. Indeed it was, as each had made a monetary investment in the organization. That artists were drawn to the non-profits so strongly, though they received no direct financial benefit, demonstrates the vital importance of these organizations. However, their lack of monetary flow made them extremely difficult to run and maintain.

Artist-run exhibition spaces of the 1970s faced the challenges of all organizations to sustain themselves over time. In order to exist and resist obsolescence, an organization must evolve to meet changing conditions. Some arts organizations equate change with growth in exhibition space and programming and, accordingly, an increasing budget. An example from the 1970s would be The Kitchen, a SoHo venue for avant-garde music, video, performance, and aligned activities, whose budget increased four-fold from 1977 to 1980.(21) The problem with this model of change for alternative venues like A.I.R., 112 Greene, and even The Kitchen, though it ceased to be an artist-run space in 1974, is that the larger an organization gets, the more unwieldy it becomes. Large organizations require the attention of full-time administrators and fundraisers, and artists tend to have less say in their activities. Large non-profits also become more dependent on their funding sources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, which requires arts organizations to fit certain institutional models in order to receive funding and has infamously sought to censor its beneficiaries.(22)

A.I.R. did not follow the model of change equals growth, and its co-op structure allowed it to be less reliant on public funding. These factors most likely contributed to the gallery's retention of its character as an artist-run space throughout the 1970s.(23) A.I.R. has also proven the co-op model to be sustainable long-term; it still operates as a co-op at present. However, what A.I.R. has not been able to do is to retain its vitality and status. Artists such as Nancy Spero, Mary Beth Edelson, and Ana Mendieta exhibited at A.I.R. into the early 1980s, but other artists of their stature and progressive nature did not arrive to replace them. The gallery operates today in relative obscurity.

By the late 1970s, the milieu that saw the founding of A.I.R., The Kitchen, 112 Greene Street, and the many other artist-run exhibitions spaces had come to a close. SoHo was no longer the artists' community it had once been. Real estate prices in the neighborhood had soared, and artists seeking affordable housing retreated to the Lower East Side. Both A.I.R. and 112 Greene relocated around this time, and no doubt, the increased rents put a strain on their budgets. By this time, the synergy of the early 1970s alternative arts community had dissipated, and commercial galleries were taking over the role of introducing new artists. In the 1980s, the market took a stronger hold of the art world than it ever had before, and commercial galleries managed to commodify and sell what had been the progressive strategies and styles exhibited in the alternative venues.(24) In addition, the number of commercial galleries had multiplied, and the need for exhibition spaces that had in part driven the founding of A.I.R. and the others was gone. Thus the artist-run spaces had lost their major roles in the arts community. They were, in general, unable to generate new ones.

A.I.R. also had to face the changing demographics of those represented in commercial galleries. By the 1980s, many more women were being shown in galleries than when A.I.R. began, and the role it had played as one of the few places for women artists to exhibit was gone. A membership survey sent out in the mid-1980s demonstrated that most of the members were unsure of what A.I.R.'s mission was or even had been.(25) In short, the gallery had outlived its purpose to make women artists visible in the art world. No doubt, this was one of the gallery's accomplishments. On the other hand, the gallery had not outlived the relevance of its critique of the market's influence on art making. Instead, conditions had changed sufficiently that A.I.R. was no longer able to enact this critique. Due to a number of factors, it no longer drew the same caliber of progressive artwork, and its once clear and articulate voice was drowned out by the onslaught of the commercial galleries.

The question remains of whether or not it was possible for A.I.R. to maintain itself indefinitely as a strong critique of the commercial gallery system and the mechanisms within it that enforced the sexism of the art world. Was there any way for the gallery to adapt in order to continue attracting dynamic new artists in a market-frenzied art world? Could it have regenerated itself as a center of the feminist arts community? If A.I.R. can be criticized for not accomplishing these things, it cannot be faulted for doubling back on its objectives or allowing itself to become an entrenched, dormant institution. Today, A.I.R. finds itself in a difficult position as one of several hundred galleries in the Chelsea arts district. It remains a cooperative gallery exclusively for women artists, continues a steady exhibition program of solo and group shows, and has begun a juried biennial of work by women artists. In addition, A.I.R. retains a comprehensive archive of its administrative files, correspondence, and exhibition history, which is open to researchers. Through its archive, A.I.R. plays a crucial role in preserving a portion of the history of art that is often overlooked. Thus A.I.R. continues providing services to the art community, and, in some respects, it retains the qualities of a scrappy, grassroots arts organization.

This is certainly an admirable way for an alternative organization to persist once it has declined from its peak of activism. However, this may not be the only way for A.I.R. to continue. Hypothetically, A.I.R.'s membership could take its early history as an example and undertake to re-radicalize the gallery. The motivating force for the founders of A.I.R. may not be so apparent today, but some conditions in the art world have not changed, such as the importance of the commercial gallery system in the introduction of emerging artists. In addition, there is no center for feminist art and artists comparable to A.I.R. in the 1970s with its role as a center not only for exhibitions but also for education and the lively exchange of ideas. A.I.R. began as an idea in the minds of a few women artists in a climate of activism and collaboration among artists. A number of conditions were favorable for such a venture in the early 1970s, but its success really turned on the ideas and dedication of its members and the support and attention of certain members of the art community. If individuals within A.I.R.'s membership wished to change its direction toward its full activities of the past, certainly the cooperative structure of the gallery would allow this to happen. And, with the current interest in the alternative art movements of the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the efforts of these individuals would in fact draw attention and bring A.I.R. to a greater level of visibility. Of course, this is only speculation. Perhaps a feminist cooperative gallery will never attract as much attention outside the climate of the greater 1970s feminist movement. But why should the strongly activist A.I.R. be automatically consigned to history when the gallery organization has shown itself to be such a durable model for over 30 years? With the will of its membership, A.I.R. may have the capacity for regeneration in its previous model. This is not to prescribe re-radicalization as the right direction for A.I.R. but only to suggest the possibility. Whether it shifts direction or stays its course, the efforts and endurance of A.I.R., its membership, and its administration are nothing if not laudable.


1 Corinne Robins, "Artists in Residence: The First Five Years," Womanart 1, no. 4 (Winter 1977-8) p. 6.

2 Robins, p. 5.

3 Marcia Tucker, "Bypassing the Gallery System," Ms. 1, no.8 (Feb 1973) p. 34.

4 Robins, p. 5.

5 "A.I.R. Proposal 1972," Unpublished, A.I.R. Archive (New York, NY) p. 2

6 Cindy Nemser, "Interview with Members of A.I.R." Arts Magazine 47 (Dec. 1972) pp. 58-9.

7 "A.I.R. Proposal 1972," pp. 4-6.

8 For example, Peter Schjeldahl, "The Changing Gallery Scene: Return of the Co-op," New York Times (Sept. 17, 1972) p. D23. Mary Beth Edelson and Barbara Zucker also mentioned A.I.R.'s popularity in interviews and correspondence with the author.

9 Judith K. Brodsky, "Exhibitions, Galleries, and Alternative Spaces" in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History, and Impact, eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) pp. 108-109.

10 Alanna Siegfried and Helene Zucker Seeman, SoHo (New York: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc., 1978) p. 20.

11 Brian Wallis, "Public Funding and Alternative Spaces," Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985, ed. Julie Ault (New York and Minneapolis: The Drawing Center and the University of Minnesota Press, 2002) p. 162.

12 "A.I.R. Proposal 1972," p. 1.

13 "A.I.R. Proposal 1972," p. 2.

14 After the gallery's highly successful opening in September of 1972, A.I.R. member Harmony Hammond thought that the emphasis on professionalism by art establishment standards was no longer crucial. She said, "...A.I.R. is well-received, so less emphasis should be placed on making it look uptown perfect." Quoted by Cindy Nemser in "Interview with Members of A.I.R." Arts Magazine 47 (Dec. 1972) p. 59.

15 For a discussion of the pitfalls of alternative spaces as gatekeepers, see Arlene Goldbard, "When (Art) Worlds Collide," Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985, ed. Julie Ault (New York and Minneapolis: The Drawing Center and the University of Minnesota Press, 2002) p. 185-7.

16 Author's interview with Mary Beth Edelson (Oct. 2004) Unpublished.

17 For accounts and reviews of panel discussions held at A.I.R., see Judy Seigel, Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk that Changed Art, 1975-1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992).

18 Author's interview with Mary Beth Edelson (Oct. 2004) Unpublished.

19 In particular, see Cindy Nemser, "Interview with Members of A.I.R." Arts Magazine 47 (Dec. 1972) pp. 58-9 and Barbara Zucker, "Making A.I.R." Heresies 2, no.3 (Spring 1979) pp. 80-82.

20 Zucker, p. 82.

21 John Rockwell, "A New Music Director Comes to the Avant-Garde Kitchen," New York Times (Sept. 14, 1980) p. D23.

22 Wallis, pp. 173-175.

23 Around 1979, the members of the gallery opted to hire a director and appoint a board separate from the membership, relieving the artists of their responsibilities in running the gallery.

24 Robert Storr, class discussion, "Alternatives" seminar (New York: Institute of Fine Arts) Nov. 29, 2004.

25 Membership survey, Unpublished, A.I.R. Archive (New York, NY).

Works Cited

"A.I.R. Proposal 1972." Unpublished. A.I.R. Archive (New York, NY).

Ault, Julie, ed. Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985. New York and Minneapolis: The Drawing Center and the University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Broude, Norma and Mary D. Garrard, eds. The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History, and Impact. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Edelson, Mary Beth. Interview with the author. Unpublished. (Oct. 2004).

Nemser, Cindy. "Interview with Members of A.I.R." Arts Magazine 47 (Dec. 1972) pp. 58-59.

Robins, Corinne. "The A.I.R. Gallery 1972-1978," Womanart 1, no. 4 (Winter 1977-8) pp.5-7, 42.

Rockwell, John. "A New Music Director Comes to the Avant-Garde Kitchen." New York Times (Sept. 14, 1980) p. D23.

Schjeldahl, Peter. "The Changing Gallery Scene: Return of the Co-op." New York Times (Sept. 17, 1972) p. D23.

Seigel, Judy. Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk that Changed Art, 1975-1990. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992.

Siegfried, Alanna and Helene Zucker Seeman. SoHo. New York: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc., 1978.

Storr, Robert. Class discussion. "Alternatives" seminar (New York: Institute of Fine Arts) Nov. 29, 2004.

Tucker, Marcia. "Bypassing the Gallery System." Ms. 1, no. 8 (Feb. 1973) pp. 33-35.

Zucker, Barbara. E-mail correspondence with the author. Unpublished. (Oct. 2004).