The A.I.R. Gallery was founded because, despite gains made by the early women artists’ movement, the majority of the emergent women had no place to show their art. The commercial galleries were filled up with men and, even if more good will existed than it does, it would take forever for women to sift through the extant openings. Other co-ops also tended to be run by men and to lack the cohesion that a political alliance, no matter how feeble, provides an all-woman gallery. Precedents existed on the West Coast (notably Woman-space, later to be absorbed into the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles) and A.I.R. itself has since been followed by other women’s galleries—ARC and Artemesia in Chicago, 707 and the two Grand-view Galleries in L.A., Hera in Wakefield, R.I., SoHo 20 in New York, WARM in Minneapolis, and so forth.
Most people know A.I.R. Gallery for the flare it sent out over the art world in the early seventies. By combining the structure of an artists’ cooperative with feminism to create an alternative gallery for women artists in the epicenter of New York’s increasingly market-driven art scene, the gallery garnered early critical and public attention.
While everyone loves a good founding story and feminism rightfully demands an accurate telling of credit where credit is due, what is most remarkable about A.I.R., these many years later, is that it is open today and largely unchanged in its core mission: to support individual artists through feminism’s collaborative approach. What are we to make of that? That women artists still don’t experience unfettered professional equality? (Unfortunately, yes, especially when you examine commercial trends.) That artists are still drawn to a peer-group, collective-management model that protects the voice of the artist in the din of the market? (Interestingly, yes.) That A.I.R.’s founding mission and structure had a certain simplicity and directness that guaranteed its longevity? (Unexpectedly, 36 years later, yes.)
It is hard to recreate how epochal it was. Two friends who shared a Centre Street studio in downtown Manhattan decided to form the first all women’s artist-run gallery. Artist-run galleries were “not thought of highly,” remembers Barbara Zucker. “The only thing worse would be a women’s co-op. A double negative. It was thrilling!”
Then, feminism was in its infancy, it had barely penetrated the New York art world a year earlier, notably in a historic 1970 Whitney Museum protest, launched by the Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists, to draw attention to the dismal 5 percent or less of female representation in the museum’s prestigious annual. In one action, saboteurs, famously, cached Tampax and hardboiled eggs in sculptures and alcoves around the museum with the hopeful demand “Fifty Percent” on them. Of course, misogyny is still alive and well, but in those days, it flourished unquestioned. “Dames can’t paint,” as Barnett Newman said. This was a common belief among artists. Dealers deployed the rejection line, “You’ll just get married and pregnant.” Or as gallerist Allan Frumkin was quoted: “I don’t like women. They cry.”