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A.I.R. Gallery — Activism

Christian Camacho-Light Oct 14, 2022 10 Minute Read

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

In late 1975, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was planning an exhibition to be presented the following September in conjunction with a nationwide celebration of the United States Bicentennial.

This survey exhibition, Three Centuries of American Art, would travel to the Whitney from the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco following its presentation there in the spring of 1976. Facilitated by E. P. Richardson, a scholar of American art and art advisor to philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, the exhibition would consist entirely of loans from Rockefeller’s private collection. [1] As news of the upcoming exhibition reached the New York art community, the representative nature of this alleged survey of American art was already in doubt: the show would feature a single woman artist and include no works by Black, nonwhite, or Indigenous artists. [2]
Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, Petition to the Whitney and de Young Museums from the American Art Community and Others, 1976.
Digitized as part of a partnership between A.I.R. Gallery and The Feminist Institute, 2022. See record
In a November 3, 1975 letter to Whitney Director Thomas N. Armstrong III, Benny Andrews, Lucy Lippard, and Rudolf Baranik took issue with the specious view of American art history that the Rockefeller exhibition threatened to promote and requested a private meeting with museum leadership to voice their concerns. [3] Met with dismissal by Armstrong at the museum, Andrews, Lippard, Baranik, and others held a public forum in response. Out of the ensuing discussion came an open letter addressed to the American art community and signed by 11 artist groups and 36 individuals—the founding action of the nascent activist collective Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (AMCC). [4]
AMCC’s letter laid out a series of criticisms of the Whitney’s Rockefeller exhibition: that the show was only the most recent example of a cultural institution upholding the values and property of the upper class; that in doing so the museum betrayed its commitments to the artists and public it claimed to serve; that dressing up a private collection, with its inherent biases, as an objective survey of American art was a dangerous misrepresentation of American history and culture; and that the exhibition made apparent the museum’s continued unwillingness to act on previous promises made to Black and feminist activist groups. [5] On this final point the letter states: “The [Whitney] exhibition schedule through 1978 includes only two shows in which Black artists are expected to exhibit. Nor, despite gains on the Feminist front provoked by lengthy protests in the Winter of 1970–71, is there a single full-scale one-woman exhibition planned in that period.” [6]
Earlier, in 1968, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) had also formed in protest to a Whitney survey, in this case, The 1930’s: Painting and Sculpture in America, an exhibition that included no Black artists. [7] The BECC (for which Andrews and Henri Ghent acted as primary spokespeople) organized pickets of the museum and staged a counter exhibition, Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 30s, at the newly founded Studio Museum in Harlem. Dialogue between the BECC and Whitney leadership led to promises on the museum’s part to meet a series of demands that included the hiring of Black curatorial staff, a promise that, in 1975, remained unmet.
In the fall of 1970, the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee (Ad Hoc) and Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL) too had taken action against the Whitney, this time for systematically excluding women artists from its Annual exhibitions (the makeup of the previous year’s iteration had been only 4.5% women). [8] Ad Hoc, whose membership included Lippard and Faith Ringgold (a founder of WSABAL and member of the BECC), engaged in a campaign for “50% Women” through interventions that included planting eggs and tampons stamped with this message throughout the museum’s galleries. Out of this activism came the Ad Hoc Art Registry (later the Women’s Slide Registry), produced as a rebuttal to curators who explained away unrepresentative exhibitions by claiming, unfoundedly, that work by women artists lacked quality or stylistic diversity. The slide registry also served as an invaluable community-building resource for women artists. It was from Ad Hoc’s registry that Barbara Zucker, Susan Williams, Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero—Zucker and Williams having been introduced to the latter four women by Lippard—selected the remaining fourteen founding members of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. [9]
AMCC was itself “a very loose ‘coalition’ of mostly artists and art workers” gathered in response to the Rockefeller exhibition. [10] In composition, AMCC had much overlap with both ongoing and defunct artist-activist groups, including the aforementioned BECC and Ad Hoc, the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) of 1969–71, as well as the New York branch of the Conceptualist group Art & Language (ALNY), whose membership included Sarah Charlesworth and Joseph Kosuth. [11] Artists Baranik and May Stevens, a founding member of SOHO20 (a women’s cooperative gallery modeled on the nearby A.I.R.), hosted the group’s first meetings before AMCC took up weekly residence at Artists Space on Sunday evenings. The agenda for these gatherings comprised position-paper presentations and discussions, as well as action-based planning. The third and final issue of the short-lived ALNY magazine The Fox (1975–76) featured “For Artists Meeting,” an essay penned by Charlesworth that acted as an introduction to the group and a portfolio of documents produced or discussed during AMCC’s meetings, such as the December 1975 open letter. [12] Additional reproductions included a paper on feminism and group relations and Carolee Schneemann’s essay “The Pronoun Tyranny,” itself a harbinger of a coming splintering as AMCC members who had left broader coalitions like the AWC to focus on feminist concerns became increasingly disenchanted once again, leading to the formation of feminist groups like the Heresies Collective. [13] This earlier movement toward feminist separatism echoed and was simultaneous with the move taken by A.I.R.’s founders to establish an alternative space dedicated solely to the work of women artists.
AMCC’s founding address announced a picket of the Whitney to take place on January 3, 1976 “as the first step in setting up a national network to protest such misuse of art and artists for the Bicentennial—and afterwards.” [14] Additional pickets were later staged at the museum and at Rockefeller Center on February 26 and at the exhibition’s opening on September 16. Some within the group argued that these actions alone were insufficient and produced flyers calling for a boycott. [15] A circulated petition went further still, calling for the exhibition to be canceled entirely. This is the document that appears in A.I.R.’s archive at the Fales Library, perhaps passed around for signatures following an event at the gallery and, if so, likely by way of A.I.R. co-founder and activist Nancy Spero. [16]Its presence in the archive is reflective of the frequent overlap between A.I.R.’s membership and that of 1960s and ’70s artist-activist groups, as well as the dovetailing of AMCC’s representational concerns and A.I.R.’s raison d'être. [17]
In the inaugural 1976 summer issue of Womanart, Joanne Stamerra writes about two other New York exhibitions that were the subject of protest that February: Drawing Now at the Museum of Modern Art and 20th-Century American Drawing at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. [18] These protests were the work of the MoMA and Guggenheim Ad Hoc Protest Committee (headed by Spero), a group organized to call out these surveys’ lack of representation of women artists. In one instance, as Spero and others protested outside MoMA, Stamerra entered the museum to plant erasers that bore the message “ERASE SEXISM AT MOMA.” [19] A joint flyer from this period promotes AMCC’s Whitney picket on February 26 and the Protest Committee’s picket of MoMA the following day. [20] Also for Womanart, Stevens recounts, in an article on the Rockefeller protests, having attended an AMCC meeting at which papers on feminism were read the evening prior to an event at A.I.R. that celebrated a gallery-sponsored exhibition at Vassar College of 1930s women artists. [21] The collaborative nature and overlapping concerns of groups like AMCC and the Protest Committee are evidence in this regard of the galvanization of feminist activists that followed women artists’ networking and community building during 1960s mixed-gender activism. This is in parallel as well to the proliferation of women’s cooperative galleries nationally in the 1970s that came in the wake of A.I.R.’s successful model. [22]
By 1977, AMCC had all but dissolved due to infighting and difficulties identifying a unifying purpose absent the primary catalyst of the Rockefeller exhibition. [23] Some, like Lippard and Stevens, went on to found more focused feminist groups. [24] In the coalition’s final year, however, holdouts in the AMCC’s internal Catalog Committee published the group’s most enduring legacy, An Anti-Catalog, which acted as a counter to the official Richardson-penned de Young/Whitney catalog. [25] Collectively authored by the committee, the Anti-Catalog is a collection of written and visual essays, influenced by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), that contextualizes the Rockefeller exhibition through discussions of race, gender, class, labor, indigeneity, nationalist myth, and capitalist philanthropy. [26] Evident throughout is AMCC’s core lesson: that culture is inherently ideological and its institutions therefore never neutral. Evident as well is a tension not alien to A.I.R.’s own history—that between the reformer and the radical, between those who seek institutional representation and those who seek new institutions altogether. [27]
Christian Camacho-Light is a curator and writer based in New York. Their curatorial research deals with matters of difference and identity, recognition and resistance, and the relationship between aesthetic and social representation. They’ve organized exhibitions and public programs at A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, NY; Kate Werble Gallery, New York, NY; Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space, New York, NY; Abrons Arts Center, New York, NY; The Berrie Center for Performing and Visual Arts, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ; Knockdown Center, Queens, NY; The International Studio & Curatorial Program, Brooklyn, NY; and the Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Camacho-Light is the Executive Director of A.I.R. Gallery and was previously Director of Exhibitions and Fellowship at A.I.R. (2020–2022), Associate Director at Kate Werble Gallery (2017–2020), and AIRspace Curator-in-Residence at Abrons Arts Center (2017–2019). They hold an MA in Curatorial Studies from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and a BA in Art History from Vassar College.


[1]: American Art: An Exhibition from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, April 17–July 31, 1976; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, September 16–November 7, 1976. Rockefeller’s collection was bequeathed in its entirety to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1979. In 1993, it was combined with a gift from his wife Blanchette Ferry Hooker Rockefeller to become the Fine Arts Museums’ Rockefeller Collection of American Art, the museums’ “single most important gift of art.” “The Rockefeller Collection of Art,” de Young Museum,, accessed July 20, 2020. The announcement of the promised gift in 1978 was reported glowingly in the New York Times, with no mention made of the bicentennial controversy two years prior. Wallace Turner, “John D. Rockefeller 3d Wills $10 Million in American Art to San Francisco,” New York Times, January 20, 1978, p. C16.

[2]: As Robert Bailey notes, by the time the show opened, its official title was American Art: An Exhibition from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, a name slightly more forthcoming about the exhibition’s limited purview. Robert Bailey, Art & Language International: Conceptual Art Between Art Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 207. As late as July 12, 1976, however, the New York Times was still referring to the upcoming Whitney iteration as Three Hundred Years of American Art. See Grace Glueck, “Older Art Invades the Modern Museum,” New York Times, July 12, 1976, p. B6; and Hilton Kramer, “Art of the American Past Gets Its Due,” New York Times, September 17, 1976, p. C1.

[3]: Benny Andrews, Lucy Lippard, and Rudolf Baranik to Thomas N. Armstrong, November 3, 1975, in Rudolf Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog (New York: The Catalog Committee, Inc., 1977), p. 68.

[4]: “To The American Art Community from Artists Meeting for Cultural Change,” petition, December 14, 1975, in Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, pp. 70–71.

[5]: Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, pp. 70–71

[6]: Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, pp. 70–71.

[7]: See Caroline Wallace, “Exhibiting Authenticity: The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s Protests of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968–71,” Art Journal 74, no.2 (Summer 2015): pp. 5–23. The BECC is perhaps most well known for protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind, a show that included no artworks by Black artists and whose curator never seriously consulted Black experts in the planning of the exhibition. See Aruna D’Souza, Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in 3 Acts (New York: Badlands Unlimited, 2018), pp. 105–146.

[8]: For a detailing of Ad Hoc’s actions surrounding the 1970 Whitney Annual, see Lucy R. Lippard, “Biting the Hand: Artists and Museums in New York since 1969,” in Alternative Art New York, 1965–1985, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pp. 95–96, 98–100. The members of Ad Hoc and the later AMCC had much overlap with those of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), which formed in 1969 around the issue of artists’ rights. The AWC also organized around civil rights and issues of representation and included gender parity among a list of demands made to the Museum of Modern Art in June 1969. AWC spun off into a number of more focused groups, many of them feminist collectives like Ad Hoc, WSABAL, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), and the Guerilla Art Action Group (GAAG). See Alan W. Moore, “Artists’ Collectives: Focus on New York, 1975–2000,” in Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, eds. Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), pp. 196–199; and Michelle Elligott, “Modern Women: A Partial History,” in Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art, eds. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), p. 519.

[9]: Carey Lovelace, “Aloft in Mid A.I.R.,“ A.I.R. Gallery,, accessed July 20, 2020; Lucy Lippard, “A.I.R.,” A.I.R. Gallery,, accessed July 20, 2020.

[10]: Sarah Charlesworth, “For Artists Meeting,”* The Fox* 1, no. 3 (1976): p. 42.

[11]: For greater detail on AMCC’s role as a nexus for artist-activist groups, see Michael Corris, “Inside a New York Art Gang: A Documentary History of Art & Language in New York,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, eds. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 474–476; and Bailey, Art & Language International, pp. 126–128.

[12]: Moore notes that ALNY’s emphasis on “discussion and critique” had a large influence on AMCC’s working method, something that Charlesworth, in 1976, also observed: “The real value and import of such [AMCC] meetings lies precisely in the fact that it is only in our social interaction, in the gradual and often extremely frustrating process of developing a clear self and social consciousness that any alternative basis for responsible cultural and political action can emerge.” An argument could be made that the stress Charlesworth places on transforming “self and social consciousness” bears an affinity with the consciousness-raising of second-wave feminism. Moore, “Artists’ Collectives: Focus on New York, 1975–2000,” p. 202; Charlesworth, “For Artists Meeting,” pp. 42, 47–53.

[13]: Lippard writes: “In 1976 I had thought that maybe the time had come to take my feminism out into the world and work with men again, but it was disillusioning, to say the least, the find in the AMCC that even these supposedly radical changers of culture could not even change their own sexist speech habits; the exclusive use of the male pronoun in meetings and writings became a warning signal. Yet I took back to feminism a variety of lessons from the AMCC about the necessity to organize along broader cultural lines. Other women cultural workers were thinking the same way, and in that same winter (1975/76), we began to hold open meetings to form a new vehicle for feminism, art and politics, which by spring became the twenty-two-woman Heresies Collective.” Lucy R. Lippard, Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984), p. 25. The founding members of the Heresies Collective include Lippard, Stevens, and A.I.R. members Mary Beth Edelson, Harmony Hammond, and Elke Solomon.

[14]: Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, pp. 70–71.

[15]: See Corris, “Inside a New York Art Gang,” pp. 476–477. One such flyer is reproduced in Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, p. 75.

[16]: In a 2003 interview for Artforum, Tim Rollins recalls Nancy Spero being among the active members of AMCC. The group also cross-promoted its actions with those taken by Spero’s MoMA and Guggenheim Ad Hoc Protest Committee. See “80s Then: David Deitcher on Tim Rollins,” Artforum 41, no. 8 (April 2003), accessed July 20, 2020,; and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, “Boycott This Show!” flyer, in Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, p. 75.

[17]: Meredith A. Brown., “‘The Enemies of Women’s Liberation in the Arts Will Be Crushed’: A.I.R. Gallery’s Role in the American Feminist Art Movement,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian, 2012,, accessed July 20, 2020.

[18]: Joanne Stamerra, “Erasing Sexism from MoMA,” Womanart 1, no. 1 (Summer 1976): pp. 12–13.

[19]: Ibid. See also Aruna D’Souza, “‘Float the Boat!’: Finding a Place for Feminism in the Museum,” in Butler and Schwartz, Modern Women, pp. 62–66.

[20]: Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, “Boycott This Show!” flyer, in Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, p. 75.

[21]: May Stevens, “Whitney Protests: Where is Edmonia Lewis? Where is Henry O. Tanner?,” Womanart 1, no. 1 (Summer 1976): pp. 8–9.

[22]: Brown, “‘The Enemies of Women’s Liberation in the Arts Will Be Crushed.”

[23]: Alan Wallach, “Rereading An Anti-Catalog: Radical Art History and the Decline of Left,” The Anti-Museum, eds. Mathieu Copeland and Balthazar Lovay (Fribourg, CH: FRI-ART; London: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016), pp. 451–460. A “Tentative Position Paper” reproduced with Charlesworth’s essay in the final issue of The Fox anticipates the danger of this myopia quite presciently: “Whilst the Rockefeller issue has provided a new and temporary solidarity it should be realised that interest will quickly deteriorate once this urgency has passed. This temporary focus may be useful and indeed necessary, but it is not sufficient reason in itself for a continuing group dialogue …To put it bluntly: it becomes both boring, and destructive of our continuing interest, to be exclusively concerned with action, at the expense of understanding … Important as these protest actions are, if they become the raison d’etre of the group, they will become diversionary and counter-productive.” “‘A Tentative Position Paper’ Prepared by the Position Paper Committee of Artists Meeting for Cultural Change,” The Fox 1, no.3 (1976): p. 45.

[24]: AMCC’s Anti-Catalog was advertised in the inaugural issue of the Heresies Collective’s journal in January 1977. “The Anti-Catalog,” advertisement, Heresies 1, no. 1 (January 1977): p. 111.

[25]: AMCC’s Anti-Catalog includes an archive of documents and ephemera produced during the group’s period of activity, including letters, flyers, and a blank copy of the A.I.R. archive petition. Also of note is a 1976 letter from the Whitney’s librarian Arno Kastner requesting a preorder of the Anti-Catalog for the museum’s archive. Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, pp. 68–79; Arno Kastner to Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, November 10, 1976, in Baranik et al., An Anti-Catalog, p. 79.

[26]: The Catalog Committee was composed of Baranik, Sarina Bromberg, Charlesworth, Susanne Cohn, Carol Duncan, Shawn Gargagliano, Eunice Golden, Janet Koenig, Kosuth, Anthony McCall, Paul Pechter, Elaine Bendock Pelosini, Aaron Roseman, Larry Rosing, Ann Marie Rousseau, Alan Wallach, and Walter Weissman, with bylined contributions by Jimmy Durham and Gerald Horne. As relayed to David Deitcher by Tim Rollins, several early members of Group Material, all students of Kosuth’s at the School of Visual Arts, also worked on the Anti-Catalog. “80s Then: David Deitcher on Tim Rollins,” Artforum 41, no. 8 (April 2003). Gregory Sholette goes so far as to state that AMCC’s Anti-Catalog “probably represents the first substantial interpretation of American art from a socially contextualized perspective rather than a formal or biographical one.” Gregory Sholette, “Art Out of Joint: Artists’ Activism Before and After the Cultural Turn,” in The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, ed. Andrew Ross (New York: OR Books, 2015), p. 75.

[27]: For a greater discussion of this tension within the context of the history of A.I.R., see Brown, “‘The Enemies of Women’s Liberation in the Arts Will Be Crushed.”