This essay is featured in the digital exhibition A.I.R. Gallery: Chapter 1.
A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) was a groundbreaking enterprise, a model for women artists across the country who were taking their careers into their own hands rather than waiting for a patriarchal and often misogynous art world to get around to them.
What most women (and hopefully feminist) artists wanted was a chance to show what they could do. A.I.R. was the perfect vehicle—collective, collaborative, not-for-profit, and widely respected. Its membership was impressive. Many A.I.R. founders went on to be successful in the mainstream art world (though most had to wait a long time), and when they arrived, many did their best to pave the way for more of their peers. (Younger women sometimes tell me that they are not feminists per se but that they stand up for themselves; I remind them that feminists stand up not just for themselves but for other women too.)
From the beginning, A.I.R. was a risky enterprise. At the time, it was difficult for women artists to score studio visits from critics, curators, and gallerists. In order to be taken seriously as “professionals,” they often had to pretend not to be wives, not to be mothers. In those overtly sexist days, “separatism” was denigrated as the last resort of losers. Yet I suspect that the mainstream was surprised to see the broad and enthusiastic support the early women’s galleries attracted.
A.I.R.’s first decade was a time of “becoming,” when women artists had the courage to explore their gender in ways obviously inaccessible to males. Many of us (myself included) went from trying to be one of the boys to a far more comfortable, and militant identification with women. It was an exciting and heartwarming time, despite the contradictions and controversies of the discourse and the mistakes (mostly related to an unsatisfying proportion of women of color). These issues were also familiar to the group of us (including some of A.I.R.’s founders) that started Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics in 1975. For all of us, the Feminist Art Program at CalArts and the L.A. Woman’s Building paved the way forward. In New York, it was the work of the Ad Hoc Women Artists Committee, which challenged the demographics of the Whitney (then) Annual in 1970. At one point, A.I.R. was considered to house the Women’s Art Registry of slides, begun by Ad Hoc, but it was finally decided that an academic home, at Rutgers, was a safer proposition. Who could have known that the gallery would survive for half a century?
I organized one exhibition at A.I.R.: Speaking Volumes, a show of artists’ books by women, in 1980. I believe it was my third or fourth women’s show. Funkier than most of the handsomely installed A.I.R. shows, my awkward cartoon was the announcement, and the back wall was a “white board” for comments. (I’m not sure the wall’s end product was ever documented.) The show was inspired by the spirit of A.I.R. itself. Artists’ books (by, not about, artists) are public art—accessible, affordable, portable, and innovative. As a relatively new medium at that time, artists’ books offered emerging women a way to communicate with a broader, and less affluent audience.
The historical documentation made available in this project is invaluable for future researchers and for younger feminists searching for their roots. Given the relatively short lives of so many artists’ co-ops, it is amazing and altogether heartening that A.I.R. continues to thrive to this day. I have lived in New Mexico for the last twenty-seven years, so I can’t speak firsthand to recent developments, but the history of this brave enterprise continues to be a model. Looking through A.I.R.’s recent exhibitions, I am struck by a breadth and variety that is less available to commercial galleries. For all the work that remains to be done, things have improved since the early 1970s. (However, for those who believe that the problem is solved and that women’s galleries are obsolete, read Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally project.) This significant history of A.I.R. will introduce the gallery’s almost five decades of accomplishments to younger generations (who may not think they need it, yet).
Lucy R. Lippard (b. 1937, New York City) is a curator, writer, activist, and author of 25 books. As a critic, Lippard is best known for her study of conceptual art in Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 and for her writing on feminist and politically engaged art. Lippard has curated over 50 exhibitions and currently resides in Galisteo, New Mexico.
Lippard was an active member of the Art Workers Coalition, an open coalition of artists and art workers founded in 1969 to pressure cultural institutions to take a stand on political issues of the day, including the Vietnam War. She was a co-founder of Printed Matter, The Heresies Collective and Journal, PADD (Political Art Documentation/ Distribution), and its journal Upfront, and Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Lippard has written on artists’ publications, particularly in connection to conceptual art’s strategies of “dematerialization.” She was an early proponent of the concept of the artist’s book as a “democratic multiple” and famously called for artists’ books to appear in “supermarkets, drugstores, and airports” rather than artistic venues.