by Frances Molina
On Wednesday afternoon, after gathering the necessities for my mission and after consulting my obnoxiously large and yellow NYC map (which I swore to never unfold outside the confines of my friend’s apartment), I set out for the A.I.R. Gallery. One astoundingly short train ride later, I was crossing up and down the side streets of Brooklyn and trying to look as if I knew precisely where I was going. When I finally reached my destination, I climbed a narrow set of concrete steps and found myself in a wide and stylishly austere hallway lined with different art galleries. I moved down the hall, counting the numbers printed beside the gallery doors until I reached #228. I was so pleased with my discovery that I did not notice that the windows were dark and the white walls within were bare.
It was not until I tried the door handle and found it would not give that I realized something was wrong. I had to jostle the handle a few more times before it really sunk in. But just I was turning away to leave, thoroughly dejected and confused, someone emerged from within the seemingly empty gallery.
It was a young woman who, if I had to guess, had been put in charge of keeping an eye on the place and informing clueless visitors about the status of the gallery. I introduced myself and explained the purpose for my visit. She confirmed my disappointment. The gallery wasn’t simply closed for that day but was in fact closed for the entire month of August. Since the A.I.R. gallery cycles through a tremendous number of shows and exhibits per month, she explained, August was a time for recuperation, a break from the massive influx of artwork they received daily from all over the city. She seemed to notice my distress so before I left she gave me a brochure and assured me that more information could be found on the gallery’s website. Nevertheless, as I trundled back down those concrete steps and out into the street, my mind was reeling. How was I supposed to review an art gallery if there was no art? If I couldn’t even get into the space?
Later, as I sat in a café around the block, consoling myself with freshly squeezed juice, I stopped worrying about how I was going to get my story and started brainstorming. I decided I would use my misadventure as a springboard in order to better explore the topic of women in the arts.
But first, I ought to introduce the A.I.R. gallery and address the reason it inspired this piece.
The A.I.R gallery, founded in 1972, was the first all-female cooperative art gallery in the United States. It was established in order to provide a permanent and professional space for women artists during a time when most commercial art galleries were creative spaces exclusively reserved for male artists. The idea for an alternative way to exhibit women’s art began with Barbara Zucker and Susan Williams, two artists and friends, who were exhausted by the challenge of finding a dealer, decided instead to search for other similarly frustrated women artists to form a co-op. After visiting over fifty studios to share their idea and extend an invitation, the six founding members – Barbara Zucker, Susan Williams, Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero – were joined by fourteen other selected female artists and the A.I.R. was born.
The focus of the artists and their exhibitions was quality yet feminist politics remained at the center of the gallery’s purpose. As important as it was for these artists to make art and showcase their work in an inclusive and respectful space, it was perhaps even more important to actively address the existing prejudices and misconceptions surrounding women in the art world which was still extremely male-dominated and rampant with doubts about the legitimacy of women artists. At that time feminism had barely been introduced into the art world and misogyny, while still prevalent today, was entirely status quo. For example, although the gallery premiered with wholly unanticipated success, after the opening, one man begrudgingly admitted that they “had found 20 good women artists – but that’s it.” (Carey Lovelace, “A Loft in Mid A.I.R”)
As the gallery burgeoned and garnered more attention and praise, it became a subject for discussion and criticism. With the surge of feminism in the mid-1970s, that discussion began to focus on the question of women’s influence – or lack thereof – in the power structure of the art world. The concerns of the gallery started to shift. Was it enough to focus on advancing the professional careers of women artists? Or should the gallery contribute primarily to the presentation of successful role models for future generations? Or – going further – was it the responsibility of the gallery and its members to continue to challenge convention and forge new non-traditional spaces for women artists?
As the discussion surrounding the gallery evolved, so did its structure. While the A.I.R. continued to host public and community oriented programs, an internship was initiated to aid members and provide leadership and gallery experiences to young women interested in pursuing a career in art. Additionally the gallery hosted performances, panels and discussions on topics related to art and feminism, further championing its mission and enriching its impact through education and community involvement.
Today the A.I.R. gallery is steadfast in its mission and continues to provide an alternative, artist-run exhibition space for women artists and their work of quality and diversity. Through monthly exhibitions, lectures, symposia, and a host of beneficial programs, the gallery maintains astute political awareness and continues to bring “new understanding to old attitudes about women in the arts” (Lovelace). It remains an innovative and progressive example within the art world and beyond.
As I explored the history of the A.I.R. gallery, I began to realize the importance and necessity of similar creative institutions. Although women have made great strides in the arts, earning success as well as recognition and respect from their male contemporaries, the art world like the literary one is still very much a boy’s club. Ask anyone to name five male artists. Then ask them to name five female artists. The names do not come up as quickly. While it’s true that women have forged a place for themselves in the art world, that space is small, separate, and certainly not equal. I started to wonder: how many galleries like the A.I.R. are there in Texas? In any of the fifty states? How many are there in the world? And while the A.I.R. is astoundingly broad-minded in its mission, does it also diligently include and promote the art and agenda of women of color, of poor and disenfranchised women, of women who define themselves outside the gender binary? Galleries like the A.I.R. that are both professional and political are by far the exception and not the norm. That being said, they are not exempt from constructive criticism and improvement. Such a gallery should be the basic foundation for future establishments that work to ensure a safe and support space for women and their work.
And so I conclude this review (and this account of my misadventure), with a call to action. As artists and innovators, it is our responsibility to look into the uninspired spaces of the world and invent something where there is nothing. It is our responsibility to challenge the status quo and provide opportunity and motivation for our contemporaries and generations to come. And as a feminist, as a young person coming into the world and trying to do more than survive, I believe it is imperative to learn from the past and observe the present in order to improve the future.
The A.I.R. gallery and its founding members, the women who dedicated themselves and their art to its mission, have served as inspiration for this piece and it is my hope that sharing their story will inspire other young women to do as they did: to insist upon their passion and their strength and encourage one another to pursue greatness in the face of dismissal and adversity.