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What A.I.R. Gallery Taught Us

Established in 1972, A.I.R. Gallery became the first non-profit gallery in the United States dedicated to showcasing the work of women artists. Susan Williams and Barbara Zucker, along with Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero, first joined forces, going onto invite fourteen other women artists to become co-founders of the initiative, totalling twenty visionary individuals. This group included Rachel bas-Cohain, Judith Bernstein, Blythe Bohnen, Agnes Denes, Daria Dorosh, Loretta Dunkelman, Harmony Hammond, Laurace James, Nancy Kitchell, Louise Kramer, Anne Healy, Rosemary Mayer, Patsy Norvell, and Howardena Pindell. Together, they renovated their first gallery space at 97 Wooster Street in New York.

The story goes, during the gallery founders’ first meeting, held on 17 March 1972, artist Howardena Pindell proposed the name “EYRE Gallery,” a nod to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. After careful deliberation, the founding artists decided on the name “A.I.R. Gallery,” an acronym for “Artists in Residence,” inspired by the New York City Fire Department’s mandate to place an “A.I.R.” sign on floors of former industrial lofts in SoHo, which were becoming increasingly occupied by artists. On 16 September 1972, A.I.R. Gallery’s doors officially opened to the public, featuring the works of ten out of the original twenty founding artists. The event received much attention from both the art world and wider media.

From its inception, A.I.R. Gallery established an internship programme catering to students pursuing art-related majors; it also embraced community-oriented initiatives, hosting performances, discussions, and programmes exploring art and feminism. Acting as the governing body, the artists associated with A.I.R. hold the power to direct the gallery’s trajectory. By means of majority vote, they select new artists whenever a vacancy arises. Uniquely, each artist retains full autonomy over her own exhibition, taking charge of curation and installation. This freedom allows for artistic experimentation and the embrace of risks that may not always be feasible in other spaces.

Over the past five plus decades, A.I.R. Gallery has hosted numerous landmark presentations that have shaped its legacy. In 1992, the gallery organised Choice, an exhibition featuring over 750 small works on the theme of reproductive rights. This exhibition highlighted the role of art in addressing social and political issues. In 1994, A.I.R. Gallery hosted Imprint, the first large-scale digital print workshop and exhibition, showcasing the intersection of art and technology. Other important exhibitions include States of the Art curated by Lowery Sims of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Domestic Goods: Women Artists from Central Europe.

In 2006, The Downtown Collection of the Fales Library and Special Collections, housed at New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, acquired A.I.R.’s archive. Two years later, the library presented The History Show, providing an overview of the gallery’s unwavering dedication to artistic diversity and authenticity. The exhibition shed light on the contributions made by individual artists associated with A.I.R. across various influential movements. These encompassed areas such as environmental or earthworks, feminist strategies, and the exploration of unconventional materials. The show featured a wide range of mediums, including photography, sculpture, painting, performance art, video art, sound installations, and drawings.

Today, A.I.R. Gallery maintains a space in Brooklyn, New York, where it exhibits the work of hundreds of women artists each year. The gallery hosts various exhibitions, including public open calls such as Generations, the BiennialCurrents, and the Postcard Show. The legacy of A.I.R. Gallery is a testament to its innovative spirit and commitment to supporting women’s voices in the art world. In conjunction with Dotty Attie’s What Surprised Them Most, a survey exhibition of works from 1974 to 2023, P·P·O·W, New York, is hosting a panel discussion tomorrow evening, 12 July 2023, with Attie and fellow A.I.R. Gallery founding members Judith Bernstein and Daria Dorosh. Moderated by Catherine Morris, Senior Curator for the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the conversation will explore in further detail the impact of this radical organisation.