A.I.R. Gallery: A Spacetime Continuum by Dena Muller
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.)
In the spring of 1965, several years before A.I.R. opened, newly elected President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Endowment for the Arts into legislation declaring:
We fully recognize that no government can call artistic excellence into existence. It must flow from the quality of the society and the good fortune of the Nation. Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his calling in his own way. Freedom is an essential condition for the artist, and in proportion as freedom is diminished so is the prospect of artistic achievement.1
In the years that followed, the visual arts in America flourished in unexpected ways through a freedom of expression in tandem with the social justice movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. A.I.R.’s first decade cut a feminist swath through this era of experimentation as the gallery served as a site for exhibitions and public programs that caught the attention of the critics, while captivating and challenging its audience. Johnson’s statement underlines the complexities facing the gallery artists as they endeavored to exercise the freedom that the President described as the “essential condition” for artists, in a world that unconsciously applied the male pronoun to all references to artists and their work. Then, as the 1980s culminated in the heated exchanges of a “culture war” in the political and popular discourse – fueled by feminism, the AIDS crisis, and a rising American conservatism – the unrestricted freedom of the artist to create was challenged openly through a plot to diminish and dismantle the NEA.
While arguments focused on the “blasphemy” of Andres Serrano’s images and the “obscenity” of Robert Mapplethorpe’s, 2the world spent a lot of time looking at both men’s work. A.I.R.’s exhibition schedule, laced through with occasional blasphemy and obscenity (when it suited the artist’s vision), and characterized, as always, by a broad range of styles and media, continued to thrive. While A.I.R. did lose the New York State Council on the Arts funding it was founded on and sustained by in its first fifteen years, the gallery diversified and expanded to adapt to the changing art world and the changing needs of women artists.
With the creation of the National Artists Program in the mid-80s as the gallery moved from rented space on Wooster Street to purchased space on Crosby Street, A.I.R. expanded its base to include work by women artists outside New York. In the early 90s, as the effort to add property ownership to its list of cooperative activities failed, A.I.R. relocated back to Wooster Street and the Fellowship Program was established. In 1993, led by gallery member, Stephanie Bernheim, the artists agreed to seek support to sponsor emerging artists who expressed an interest in the gallery but were daunted by the dues structure and service on the Board of Directors. The Fellowship Program, in its earliest years provided sponsorship on a case-by-case basis as funds were available. As the program grew and A.I.R. expanded into a larger space in Chelsea, it solidified into a program that runs parallel to the ongoing Membership Program. Through grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Cultural Arts Fund, the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as private individual’s and member’s donations, the program has served nearly thirty artists in fifteen years. The Fellowship Program has also introduced the use of an outside review panel of critics, curators and artists, to select recipients for the one-year program culminating in a solo show opportunity in the gallery space.
It is also in this most recent era of growth, since the move back to Wooster Street in the early 1990s, that A.I.R. staff and member artists began to recognize the critical need to document and archive the history and continuation of the gallery. Beginning in 1994, then director Alissa Schoenfeld, with the support of archivist Phyllis Barr, began a process of organizing materials stored in the gallery and submitted by the more than 80 artists who had been members since 1972 into an archive of the gallery’s founding, ongoing administration, exhibitions, programs, and member artists. The archive, while it was stored at A.I.R., was often used by students, writers, members, and staff. Today, through a growing interest in the alternative, New York art scene of the second half of the 20th century and in particular the impact of feminism on the movements, organizations, and artists of that time, the A.I.R. archive has found a public home in the Downtown Collection of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections.
At the beginning of the 21st century, as mid-20th century social justice movements begin to face the possibility that they may have eaten their young by often unintentionally overlooking – and on occasion actively disempowering – emerging leadership, A.I.R. again demonstrates its resiliency. Facing the challenge of remaining pertinent amidst a changing art world and relevant to the differing generational perspectives of women newly entering the field as professional artists, A.I.R. has adapted programmatically to continue to be inclusive. Through maintaining its Membership Program and schedule of members’ solo exhibitions, as well as providing support to emerging and under-represented artists through its Fellowship Program, A.I.R. remains an art world fixture.
A.I.R. – an acronym for Artists in Residence – is able, with just a sparse stroke of letters and punctuation, to refer simultaneously to the role “residency” in a supportive environment plays in the development of an artist, the role artists play in the development of a community, and the role feminism plays in making the art world habitable for all under-represented artists.
For many artists, A.I.R. Gallery has a provided an opportunity for exploration and innovation impossible in other settings. Daria Dorosh, a multi-media artist who has maintained her membership in A.I.R. since she helped to found the gallery, explains the impact of A.I.R. on her career and her work: “I believe that A.I.R. remains vital today because it is a ‘do-it–yourself’ model . Women had to be included in the emergence of the digital age, in which DIY continues to be prominent. A.I.R. relies on a team process and has always focused on quality and diversity of artwork by women instead of a feminism with a particular aesthetic or political point of view. It has been a viable context for my own work, which explores what it means to be an artist across the decades that were a transition from the analog way of life to the digital.”3
A.I.R.’s earliest activities fully considered the role of gender in artistic practice but never definitively sided with Feminist Art’s exploration of a feminine aesthetic or with Modernism’s last hold on the universality of the creative impulse. The early inclusion of artists working in diverse traditions, media, and practices allowed for a continuation of that inclusion today, making it easy for the gallery to replicate itself as different artists rotate through its programs. In its early years, the gallery worked outwardly to radicalize the art world and struggled inwardly to maintain a collective of radically divergent viewpoints. A.I.R.’s pliancy has made it stalwart.
1. Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement by the President on the Proposed National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, March 10, 1965, The American Presidency Project (John Woolley and Gerhard Peters) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=26803# (August 2008).
2. Margaret Quigley, Political Research Associates, The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy: A Chronology of Events, The 1989-1991 Battles, http://www.publiceye.org/theocrat/Mapplethorpe_Chrono.html (August 2008).
3. Panel, “DIY Feminisms: from Pioneer to Punk to Post Digital.” Tribeca Center for Performing Arts, NYC, March 19, 2008. Moderators: Judith K. Brodsky, Kat Griefen. Panelists: Daria Dorosh, Raphaele Shirley.