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P.P.O.W's Four Decades of Courage and Compassion in the Face of Crisis

Since they opened their first East Village space in 1983, P.P.O.W co-founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington have weathered their fair share of crises, from the 1981–87 AIDS epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as mass movements, social unrest, and censorship campaigns from the far right. In spite of the tumult and financial precarity that accompanies an endeavor as risky as theirs, P.P.O.W—named after the initials of its founders—has prospered through four successive locations across Manhattan. Today in Tribeca, the gallery has made a name for itself as a hub of collective care, where trust and resilience circulate.

When Olsoff and Pilkington, two 27-year-olds working at Theo Waddington Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, decided to start a gallery of their own, there wasn’t yet a language to describe many of the experiences shared by artists from marginalized backgrounds—the same artists Olsoff and Pilkington would actively seek to show and represent. As Olsoff recalled, the term “LGBTQ” was not in use in the early ’80s (it was coined by activists around 1988).

As a result of Olsoff and Pilkington’s early experiences at P.P.O.W representing queer artists who’d been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, such as David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong, the founders developed a sense of courage and compassion that they’ve carried forward in their work for four decades. Their instinct for survival—and for ensuring the survival of their artists’ work and legacy—has persisted and evolved. When Wojnarowicz, whose estate they now represent, was nearing the end of his life, the gallery sent necessary supplies and cash to the artist’s loft, so that the artist could continue making his work.

This did not prove to be a one-off gesture. At the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Fair in February 2020, P.P.O.W mounted a solo exhibition of works by artist Jay Lynn Gomezfeaturing cardboard cutouts of blue-collar art fair workers. During this period, Gomez began to recognize herself as a trans woman, and at the fair, wore lipstick for the first time. When she came out to Olsoff and Pilkington, she remembered, “They said, ‘We’re here for you, Jay Lynn. Take your time.’ They gave me space and time to think, not just as an artist but as a person.”

Then, during lockdown, Olsoff mailed Gomez a care package containing handmade lipsticks. For Gomez, gestures like these made P.P.O.W feel not just like a gallery but, more importantly, like an ethos and a community. “As an artist who identifies as trans, I don’t have a blueprint for what I’m going through,” Gomez said, “but I don’t have to because I have the support of Wendy and Penny, who have gone through this in many different ways.”

In May 2023, another artist on their roster, Shellyne Rodriguez, lost her job at Hunter College following an altercation with New York Post reporters who showed up unannounced at her home. As videos of Rodriguez’s encounter garnered threats and harassment online, the artist had to leave New York City altogether. “She was basically in hiding,” explained Pilkington, who along with Olsoff and P.P.O.W’s director Eden Deering (Olsoff’s daughter), acted as mediators between the artist and the press, circulated petitions, and drove Rodriguez’s art supplies out to her. The gallerists knew had handled controversy before. The attack on Rodriguez was, in Olsoff’s words, “not so dissimilar to what happened to David [Wojnarowicz] during his lifetime,” particularly in 1990, when he was sued by the American Family Foundation and lambasted by the press over the inclusion of sexually explicit images in his work.

For Olsoff and Pilkington, their work has never been about pressuring artists to produce. Instead, it has been about protecting them. While the art market is known for its fickleness, the pair are invested in their artists not just as makers but as people first and foremost. Nowadays, Olsoff noted, the envy spiral of social media makes even mundane life difficult, barring major personal and political upheaval. “Artists are in a state of frenzy,” she said. “The input they get from social media is very destructive because you’re always comparing yourself. Everyone’s suffering from the constant self-advertising and competitiveness.”

Instead of chasing trends, Olsoff and Pilkington prioritize preserving their artists’ legacies. This task often requires them to serve as public educators. In 2009, P.P.O.W worked with guest curator Maura Reilly on the exhibition “Carolee Schneemann: Painting, What It Became,” a show that reframed Schneemann as a painter—something that she had always considered herself to be—at a time when, according to Olsoff, “everyone just called her a performance artist” based on a few well-known works like Interior Scroll (1975). The exhibition proved pivotal: critics and academics in attendance were introduced to a more accurate interpretation of Schneemann’s work, and we now appreciate her six-decade-long body of work through a wider lens.

Today, P.P.O.W occupies two adjacent galleries in Tribeca and is making headway into virtual spaces. This started during the pandemic with online shows such as Ann Agee’s solo show“Madonna of the Girl Child”; the group show “Hell is a Place on Earth. Heaven is a Place in Your Head,” which included films by Guadalupe Maravilla (an Artsy Vanguard alum), Carlos Motta, and others; and “Noplace,” an exploration of utopia curated by Deering. Behind the scenes, the gallery staff met on Zoom every day to discuss topics of current interest. “We responded to the moment,” said Olsoff. “We talked about the dystopia we were living in.”

P.P.O.W’s sensitivity to the shifting terrain of contemporary society—and to what Gomez called the “flux” of artists’ personal lives—has only sharpened over time. With a committed staff and a program featuring young artists like Harry Gould Harvey IV, Mosie Romney, and Astrid Terrazas alongside canonized figures such as Wojnarowicz, Wong, Jimmy DeSana, Hunter Reynolds, and Schneemann, the gallery is now taking the helm as an artworld role model even as it continues to break new ground. Whatever lies ahead for P.P.O.W, its founders are certain that, in Olsoff’s words, “Queer artists, people of color, and feminists can come here and know they’re in a safe space.”