Artists in Residence Gallery (A.I.R.) emerged during a worldwide political and social awakening, when all kinds of people were demanding their rights to equal access to resources. Its seeds were planted in the 1960s, as empires fell and globally, people sought to assert their own values, eschewing those of capitalists, colonizers, and imperialists in nearly every aspect of society, including art and culture. Many influential artistic collectives and movements embraced egalitarian values over domination and conquest. Fluxus, Spiral, AfriCOBRA, and General Idea, for example, all challenged notions of acceptable artistic practice by shining a light on the intersections of art, politics, and culture. Art remained a male-dominated field, but more and more women began to question their place in the background.
When artists and best friends Susan Williams and Barbara Zucker began toying with the idea of creating a gallery in the early 1970s, they were initially driven by a deep desire to simply show their work, since opportunities were practically nonexistent for women in the art world. Their initial idea, modeled on the first cooperative art space in New York City, 55 Mercer, included male artists. But the friends soon decided that they would subvert the common thinking that cooperatives were nonentities, and that women artists must depend on men to have a career at all. They chose instead to make their artist-run gallery a space just for women. Williams and Zucker visited female artists, looked at others via Lucy Lippard’s informal, Ad Hoc Art Registry, and soon were joined by Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero. Together, this core group selected fourteen additional artists—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—to be among the first members of what would become A.I.R. Gallery, incorporated as a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, in 1972.
A.I.R. is not the first female-focused collective gallery. San Francisco Women Artists (SFWA) began in 1887 as the “Sketch Club,” a place where women artists met to share and critique each other’s work. Pen + Brush, founded in New York in 1894, was similarly organized. But A.I.R. has perhaps been the most influential, inspiring the creation of several other women-focused, artist-run collective spaces across the country including Womanspace in Los Angeles (1973–1974), Artemisia in Chicago (1973–2003), WARM in Minneapolis (1976–1991), and even SOHO20 in Manhattan (1973 – present), among others. This explosion of growth in experimental models demonstrates how much of a hunger women artists had for space and time to exist on equal terms in the mainstream art world.
Even in seemingly progressive New York City, women historically have struggled to receive gallery representation. Opportunities at museums, including being collected by them or the access museum-affiliation might provide, have always been disproportionately lower for women than for men. From dismissal of their material choices and output as craft to stereotypes about motherhood and womanhood being inextricably linked, women artists have often labored around or between the traditional structures and systems of support to simply make their work. For the founding members of A.I.R., a fundamental goal was the desire to get their art into the public eye, and that became the shared objective, overriding the issues that inevitably occurred in such a diverse group. Finding a way to show their work to a broad audience made them a de facto community.
The original A.I.R. space at 97 Wooster Street was a loft with warped floors, peeling plaster, and rusty pipes that the members renovated themselves. It officially opened on September 16, 1972, to much excitement and curiosity. The inaugural exhibition featured work by ten of the twenty founding members, including Rachel bas-Cohain (d. 1982), perhaps best known for her 1973 series entitled, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Grid,” a sardonic critique of Cold War politics. The show was covered by The New York Times, Domus, and Ms. Magazine, among others. The pleasant surprise of rigorous and technically proficient artwork produced by women made A.I.R. an unlikely darling of the New York scene. “The art world recognized A.I.R. from the very beginning—everybody came to shows, and they were all reviewed,” remembers Joan Snitzer, who began as an intern in 1974 and later served as one of the first gallery directors. As a young art school student at Pratt Institute, she began experimenting with minimalist aesthetics, but was discouraged by her professor at the time, a prominent male artist who told her women painted representational art and men painted abstract work. In protest, she barricaded her easel with paint stools and refused him entrance to her space. At the same time, a fellow student told her about a new gallery in SoHo run by women artists, so she packed up on the spot and took the train into Manhattan to check it out. “I walked in and introduced myself, and everyone greeted me warmly and asked what I was interested in,” Snitzer says. “It was all about what I was thinking, not what I looked like. It wasn’t about my physical attributes and what I had to offer men. I’ve been involved in some capacity [with A.I.R.] ever since.”
Rooted in principles such as shared governance and cooperative decision-making, A.I.R. is a membership-based cooperative for women artists, meaning members vote on all decisions about the gallery and participate in committees that meet each month to plan exhibitions and programs, while the Executive Committee focuses on the gallery’s overarching direction and governance. Administrative staff manage the day-to-day logistics of executing those plans in collaboration with the committees, while Advisory Board members—those who have been involved with A.I.R. in the past or are interested in supporting the gallery actively in the future—provide support and advice to members and staff, helping to expand and enhance the experience of being part of the A.I.R. community.
Through different membership types, artists pay dues that give them an ownership stake in the space. Gallery membership for women and nonbinary artists includes the New York Artists program, open to artists based in New York City; the National Artists program for artists across the United States; the Alumnae Artists program, in which artists who would like to continue their relationship with the gallery can participate in programs and have New York-based gallery representation for their careers if they like; and the Adjunct Artists program where members who have maintained their membership for seven years can continue connection to the gallery, but have a less rigorous engagement in planning and decision-making if they like. (All members are automatically eligible for the Adjunct program after seven years.) Artists who wish to be members are selected via a thorough peer review process that includes work samples, discussion, and a studio visit by current members.
A.I.R. has included learning and mentoring opportunities from its early days. For young artists, like Snitzer, there was an internship program, and the Monday Night Program series (active from 1972 to 1981) created a public forum for vibrant discussion and thought leadership through conversations on art criticism and philosophy, the art market and public engagement, and slide presentations in which artists discussed their work. Programs also included workshops on practical matters like the business of being an artist, taxes, and sales, as well as instructional courses in fundamentals such as ceramics or drawing. In the 1980s, A.I.R. continued to produce similar programming, then called the Current Issue series, funded by grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. In the 1990s, the fellowship program was added to provide mentorship opportunities for emerging women artists. In addition, A.I.R. has maintained a strong exhibitions program with solo shows for members, group shows that include the work of members and non-members, as well as exhibitions highlighting national and international artists.
Part commercial gallery and part mission-driven nonprofit, A.I.R. was a gesture that thumbed its nose at traditional ideas of what it meant to “make it” as an artist in the art world. “The focus was on creating, thinking, and conceptualizing, not monetizing the work. There was some incredibly creative and innovative work as a result because there wasn’t pressure to sell,” Snitzer says. Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, a fellow from 2016 to 2017, heard about A.I.R. through professors and other artists she worked with, but had not had a formal interaction with the gallery until she decided to pursue the fellowship. Founded in 1993 by former New York Artists program member and current Advisory Board member Stephanie Bernheim, the fellowship program was created to support women and nonbinary artists living in the metropolitan area who have not had a solo exhibition at a commercial gallery or have gallery representation in New York City. “I was really looking for a place to keep learning different kinds of things, and that [focus] was really attractive,” Rodriguez-Izumi says. The fellowship supports six artists each year, providing them with a one-year A.I.R. membership, professional development, a studio visit with one of the selection panel reviewers, participation in membership-based exhibitions at the gallery, and a stipend. “It seemed like a place that was artist-led, artist-run, and with a real sense of community. I had time with my fellow group, and I also had interactions with members and the gallery staff. It was almost like a mini-version of what it’s like to be a member there,” she adds. Fellows are selected through an anonymous, multi-stage process by a three-person panel of curators, critics, and artists. The panel selects fellows based on the quality of work and commitment to practice. Potential fellows must also participate in an interview with A.I.R. artists who make the final determination for acceptance to the program. Artists working in any medium are eligible to apply.
Christian Camacho-Light has been involved with A.I.R. as a collaborator since 2016, when they organized programs and talks, and independent exhibitions for the gallery. They joined full time as Director of Exhibitions and Fellowship in October 2020, helping to strengthen the gallery’s operational structures. “A.I.R. is a very unique thing in the arts landscape and especially in New York because there are two different models that are happening simultaneously,” Camacho-Light says. “The conventional, commercial gallery model, which is this inward-facing model with a roster of artists that they support and bolster, but then there is this outward-facing, more kunsthalle-esque model happening at the same time. I think that makes [the gallery] really nimble,” they continued. This dual structure allows the organization to support artists on multiple levels while also allowing them to engage the larger arts community. Whether through the fellowship program that supports six emerging women and now also nonbinary artists each year, or through other outreach initiatives like working with local domestic violence shelters, “the duality of that model provides multiple points of access to different communities, and I think that’s a real strength.”
A.I.R. has always fought against the idea that its cooperative structure equates to a vanity gallery. In the beginning, all any of the first members could imagine was getting an equal share in the art world, “a blue chip, pyramid system where only a few could make it, even the men,” as founding member Daria Dorosh explains it. “A.I.R. was exciting because of the diversity of work being made, our ages, and it was great to create as your spirit led you, rather than trying to figure out what to sell,” she adds. “The freedom to do one’s work and the ability to own your space was important. The idea that we were a vanity galley was a way to keep us down by not honoring our ability to own our space.”
From the gallery’s inception, the founders agreed that the space would not replicate stereotypes of women as inherently “nurturing.” Although creating a space focused solely on women artists was a political act, the founders were not interested in raising the public’s consciousness about the dearth of women artists exhibited by museum exhibitions or represented by commercial galleries. Not all members had the same level of agreement on these issues, and questions of ghettoization, representation, and responsibility were vigorously debated. Many women who participated in A.I.R. shows and activities did not formally join as members, fearing professional repercussions of being in a space focused solely on women. Feminism’s second wave was in full effect, raising awareness about the “problem that has no name” as Betty Friedan called it in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique; that is, the everyday, casual sexism that assumed women were only fit for the home, were the property of men whether husbands or male relatives, and were not individuals with autonomy, hopes, or dreams. The movement was interested in race and economy, being in conversation with the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the political upheaval of capitalist empires around the world, but it was clear that its primary concerns focused on liberation for middle class white women. A feminist ideology that centered on shifting social stigmas around working outside the home didn’t always include women who needed to work to survive, and desired better jobs and pay than what was available to them. An ideology purely focused on access to reproductive healthcare like birth control or abortions didn’t always include Black and Indigenous women, and people with disabilities, who were also concerned about their rights to bear children and not endure forced sterilizations.
“When people are hungry, they aren’t particularly sensitive to others. There are going to be a lot of rough spots because in a way we really didn’t know how to communicate professionally,” founding member Barbara Zucker explains, recalling Howardena Pindell as the only nonwhite founding member of the gallery. “It never occurred to me that Howardena’s issues might be unique or different from my own. I didn’t get it.” Race wasn’t the only issue members tussled with, however. Some of A.I.R.'s members were on the poverty line and struggled to meet their monthly expenses like food and rent, not to mention the gallery’s dues requirement. “In hindsight, I don’t think they—some of the artists who were married or financially comfortable—understood the severity of the few artists who were struggling financially. It should have been discussed and rectified,” Zucker added.
“One of the conversations we are having these days is what it means to be a member,” says Susan Stainman, who has served as President of the Executive Committee since 2021.“[A.I.R.] has been mostly white over its history. We’re having lots of conversations about why, what that means, and what we can do about it […] what it means to be diverse—not just when you look at a picture and see race, class, age, but also how people work. How do we make space for actual diversity and within that equity?” Measures such as the creation of an equity committee and transformational justice framework, and structured reading group conversations on these issues are small gestures A.I.R. hopes will have a large impact.
The late activist, Grace Lee Boggs, spoke of revolution as not only the redistribution of economic resources, but also as having more human relationships with others, which gives one the ability to render their life in reimagined ways rather than only having access to the things the highest status society members have. A.I.R.’s approach to world building in the context of a cooperative gallery model is rooted in a willingness to engage in dialogue and debate. Exploring varied definitions of feminism has been key to sustaining this community for so many artists. Despite the inherent challenges around determining feminism for a collective, A.I.R. is moving toward a definition that is much more intersectional. “I think the rarity of a space like this is that it is explicitly dedicated to supporting women and nonbinary artists—something that's still very needed,” Camacho-Light says.
As A.I.R.’s members and champions look to the future of the gallery, issues of permanence, inclusion, and relevance remain at the forefront. “It always feels like this, but there is a lot of change happening in the organization, and I feel very invested in that—seeing it continue to grow and thrive,” Stainman says. She notes the tension between the mundanity of operations such as monthly meetings to report on progress and larger conversations about the role of the gallery in the future. “That’s both within the art world as a whole and the nonprofit artworld,” she adds. “Who do we serve and how do we serve beyond the twenty-one New York-based members?” At the start of the pandemic, A.I.R. pivoted quickly, developing the online exhibition, Sympoiesis; initiating Staying with the Trouble: Prompts for Practice with 2016-17 fellow Alison Owen; developing an online performance and presentation series under the direction of Executive Director Roxana Fabius and former Associate Director, Nicole Kaack featuring Ana Tiscornia, Liliana Porter, Xirin, and Ye’ela Wilschanski; and moving the public program and reading series, The Unforgettables, online as a gathering place to discuss and process the emerging pandemic. In addition, A.I.R. developed a partnership with the Beijing-based Baturu Festival to present the feminist digital art program, a series of talks, workshops, and panels supporting twenty-five artists facilitating a cross-cultural platform. Stainman feels proud of the work the organization has been able to do during the pandemic to expand audiences via programs and partnerships, and is excited about the prospect of the gallery developing those models further.
Roxana Fabius, A.I.R.’s Executive Director since 2015 is hopeful that the organization’s fiftieth anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect and plan:
I think that when looking at the past, where the failures were, where the stakes were being acknowledged, then taking responsibility for how things developed through difficult conversations is important. Even with all those mistakes and difficult situations that arise, A.I.R. has been able to provide a space that wasn't available for artists in other places. We can learn from the past by examining ourselves critically and openly and looking at what we do now. The cooperative model is so in tune with that thinking.
Fifty years on, A.I.R. persists because it’s still difficult for women to get major gallery representation, museum exhibitions, financial support and sponsorships, or simple advocacy. Zucker observes:
Everything has an end, and many things lose their relevance. Everything has a lifecycle that you cannot predict. It seems to me there is a gigantic divide in the art world now where there are these small, struggling galleries showing artists making interesting work, the mega galleries, and then there is A.I.R., the gallery that dances to its own tune. Can the instrument change? I have no idea, but if you would have told me twenty years ago that this little gallery on Wooster Street would exist today, I never would have believed it.