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A.I.R. Gallery — A Letter to Agnes Denes

Amber Esseiva Oct 14, 2022 2 Minute Read

This essay is featured in the digital exhibition A.I.R. Gallery: Chapter 4.

December 21, 2020

Agnes Denes
155 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Dear Agnes:

It’s 2020. Institutions, people, and power structures are crumbling all around us. Come 2021, we will be collectively tasked with rebuilding something else in their place. Brick by brick, we will reconstruct institutions that serve artists and their publics—institutions that reflect the values of communities and collectives who have worked tirelessly to redefine a society that was not built to serve them. We are on a precipice: new opportunities to commit to this work are in clear sight. In the not-so-distant future, we demand that originators of culture be recognized as such; that institutions become platforms for the redistribution of resources and information; and the needs of artists be put in place of the self-interests of stakeholders.

For so long, wealth, racism, and patriarchy have served as the foundations of our largest institutions. These tenets have shaped our cultural logics and standard operating procedures, forcing us to compete, conquer, and extract in order to survive. For so long, we have done the best we can within the existing systems. We seek resources from funding bodies that don’t always recognize our value. We seek recognition from the very institutions we criticize and hope to abolish. We make do with what we have been given and still insist on injecting value into institutions that in turn exploit.

Forty-eight years ago, you and a collective of women founded New York’s feminist cooperative A.I.R. Forty-eight years ago, you received a letter from Seymour Knox, Chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), notifying you that the Council had agreed to grant assistance to A.I.R.’s first discursive program. The letter addressed you and a group of women as “gentlemen,” an address that signified to them recognition and respect but, in reality, reflected rejection and neglect.
Letter from the New York State Council on the Arts to Agnes Denes, 1972.
Digitized as part of a partnership between A.I.R. Gallery and The Feminist Institute, 2022. See record
It must have been a hard pill to swallow. A double-edged sword. To be supported and undermined at the same time. That’s the thing with microaggressions, isn’t it? Whether on the spectrum of race, gender, religion, able-bodiedness, or any other matter, you are made to feel like your own humiliation is a small incident, a misreading, or merely a by-product of business-as-usual.

Just eight months before A.I.R. was granted this award, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed premiered at Sonnabend Gallery in New York. To think that you were given the support to host feminist discussions at the same time as Acconci’s act of public masturbation was critically praised. It couldn’t quite be considered indecent exposure, as the artist was lying under the gallery’s floorboards. Instead, the artist’s hidden body and indecent acts can serve as a metaphor for the time. The transgressions of men are supported by the physical architectures and ideological foundations our institutions were built upon.

Despite all this, you played the long game. The NYSCA funding supported a series of talks that would become the basis of your program and a model for collectives elsewhere. It transformed A.I.R. from a cooperative into a gallery. It served and continues to serve as an example of how resources can be extracted even from organizations who don’t share your values. You played the long game for your collective and for yourself. This is the burden that disenfranchised people so often have to bear.

It’s now 2020, and it was just last year that you exhibited your first retrospective, Agnes. It took sixty years for you to be recognized by a city into which you poured all your creative and intellectual energies. At least this time they addressed you by the proper salutation. This time they did right by you.

We now have a culture in which there is a collective resistance toward misgendering a person, in which being masculine, feminine, or non-gendered doesn’t serve as an indicator of worth. In which the salutation “gentlemen” is no longer an indicator of business being done. We live in a culture in which institutions are tasked with putting their ethics where their jargon is. This is all groundwork that you and your collective contributed to.

Institutions cannot have minds of their own. In her 1986 book, How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas proposed that institutions are merely reflections of their founders. The insistence that institutions are not free-thinking entities suggests that as culture shifts, so too can institutions—to reflect those who need them most.

Amber Esseiva
Associate Curator
Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University
Amber Esseiva is a Swiss-Senegalese-American curator and educator who specializes in producing contemporary art exhibitions and programmes by national and international mid-career and emerging artists. Esseiva is the Curator at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (ICA VCU), Richmond, VA. She also serves as the Curator-at-Large for the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY. At the ICA VCU, She has been essential to the institution’s programming since joining it in 2016 and has curated Great Force (2019–20), an exhibition featuring new commissions and recent works by an intergenerational group of 24 artists exploring how art can be used to envision new forms of race and representation freed from historical constructs. Most recently, Esseiva curated the first museum solo exhibition by LA-based artist Kandis Williams (A Field, 2020) and solo exhibitions by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape (‘Ile aye, moya, là, ndokh…harmonic conversions…mm’, 2021), New York-based composer, performer, and artist Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste (Set If Off, 2021–22), and New York-based photographer Naima Green (I Keep Missing My Water, 2022). Esseiva received her BA in Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 and her MA in 2015 from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.