Interview with JoAnne McFarland – A.I.R. Gallery Exhibitions & Operations Director

In the interview, JoAnne McFarland, A.I.R. Gallery Exhibitions & Operations Director, talks about the gallery mission, goals, history and challenges. Created in 1972, A.I.R. is a fundamental co-op gallery in New York art scene. For more than 40 years, the organization has been advocating for women in the visual arts through a great diversity of programs and events.

How did you end up at A.I.R.?

When I started out as an artist in 1982 I looked at cooperative galleries in New York City and I wound up becoming a member of Phoenix Gallery. So I knew there were artist-run spaces in the city. I think I just heard about other ones over time, and ended up applying to A.I.R. for an invitational show. That was how I first became involved with the gallery.

So you’ve been involved with the organization for a long time now.

Yes. I was a member for about 10, 11 years, and then I resigned my membership because I was having financial difficulties. I was an Adjunct Artist for maybe 3 years, and then I quit. But when a position as director opened up, I applied for that.

What is the relationship between A.I.R. and feminist ideals?

I think it’s a really strong connection. The gallery started because of a lack of visibility for women artists in the art world. That was certainly a feminist position at the time – wanting to get more exposure, giving women artists more opportunities. I think feminism is – and certainly at that time was – about women taking up more space. That’s why “Artists In Residence” – A.I.R. – as the name of the gallery is so great. Taking up more space: physical space, mental space, cultural space. So it’s very connected to that.

How does A.I.R. work today and what are its programs?

Well, the gallery is a lot bigger now than when it started. It started with 20 women artists who basically wanted to create a community, have an exhibition space, and show their work. And now the organization is way more complex. First of all, it now has a history, so we need to take care of its legacy. We have a variety of programs – and we have 40 years of membership: New York Artists, Adjunct Artists, National Artists, and Alumnae Artists. Then we have the Fellowship Program for Emerging and Under-represented Women Artists, a very important program in the gallery that started in 1993. We have several open calls—Currents, The Biennial, Generations, as a way to invite women artists into the gallery culture at various levels. Occasionally we do studio visits. We have an Internship Program that offers young women who are art students, or art professionals the opportunity to work at the gallery.

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Sara Mejia Kriendler ‘The Anthropocene”. A.I.R. May 2015 – Source: A.I.R. Facebook

A lot of work, for sure. Do you think A.I.R.’s goals and mission have changed over the years?

I think the core goal—to increase visibility for women artists is intact, but I think the overall mission is a little bit broader. In 2015 which groups are marginalized?  As a black woman artist myself, if there is an issue with women being underrepresented in the art world, there is an even greater issue with women artists of color being underrepresented. We have to ask ourselves: who is still not being seen? Is it important to represent them? That is an important question. And the answer is “Yes!” So I think the core mission is intact, but the way we address that mission has become more multifaceted.

What are the consequences of being non-profit? Can you sell art works?

As a non-profit our emphasis, our focus, is not necessarily on sales. So we don’t have the same kind of pressure that commercial galleries may have. We want to have sales, of course. But that is not the reason for the gallery’s existence. It’s more to find ways of educating the public about the issue of women’s representation in the art world generally, and doing everything we can to create a culture and community that provides opportunities for women to show.

Dena Muller, a former director of A.I.R., says in an essay that what is remarkable in A.I.R.’s history is that it is still open today and hasn’t changed its core mission. Why do you think A.I.R. is a successful case?

A.I.R. is a very stubborn organization. Very, very stubborn. It moves very slowly…that’s part of its feminist character adopted from the way women relate to each other naturally, which has a lot to do with community. Women build trust through exchanges. It can be a little bit fragile in some ways, but it also creates extremely strong bonds. That has really worked to the organization’s benefit—the monthly meetings where everybody gets together and talks, people often disagree, but ultimately decisions are built through consensus. It can be very frustrating at times, of course. But, in the long run, that has protected the organization. The need to really be sure that everybody – well, not everybody, but as many people as possible – are on board for different initiatives. So, I think that has been fabulous for the organization, and contributed to its long life. Also, the dues structure provides a sturdy foundation. Since dues underlie everything, and are the basic financial structure of the gallery, we are less vulnerable to the financial climate that exists outside the organization.

How does it finance itself?

As a membership organization, every month the members pay dues. There are different levels of dues for different tiers of membership. So, the New York Artists pay one amount per month, National Artists pay a different amount on a yearly basis, etc. It’s fairly predictable. That base provides security for the organization. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to give the organization a solid base. In addition to dues, we receive some government and private foundation grants. Also, we receive income from open calls like The Biennial. And last, we receive some income from generous individual donors.

Which is great, because you are not dependent on grants.

Exactly. At this time are trying to make the organization stronger by building a reserve fund and taking other financial initiatives. Jenn Dierdorf just came on as Development Director in order to help us to make the organization more resilient, especially given how the real estate climate in New York City has changed in recent years, making it more difficult for arts organizations to survive.

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Daria Dorosh – The Art of Sleep, A.I.R. May 2015 – Source: A.I.R. Facebook

I was reading A.I.R.’s archive documents in NYU Fales Library, for example, the mission statements, and there are always so many discussions around this theme, sometimes it looks really hard. It’s an impressive history.

And I just rewrote the mission!

Really?

Yes. About three months ago, I brought a new mission statement to the artists and we did exactly what you are saying – lots of discussion, everybody had to push it around.

But why did you rewrite the mission?

Because I didn’t feel the mission on our website went deep enough. It was just words, instead of making a deep statement about the organization, and how multifaceted it is, and how ambitious it is. I rewrote it as a way to reach out to the public, to give the public more information. I’d say the central issue for the organization that I’d like to explore during the next season is the issue of engagement. How do we actively engage the public? We have some work to do in that area. So, part of that is restating the mission in a way that it provides more real information! Not because you think it sounds good. When I came on board as Exhibitions Director one of the things I said to the members was: what does it mean to be revolutionary in 2015? The organization could keep relying on its history, the revolutionary stance of its original artists, but how does it refresh itself? Because there are still issues that need to be addressed. Who’s still marginalized in 2015? The core mission of the organization is to provide community and visibility for marginalized groups. Right now, that’s more than just women.

Isn’t it anymore?

I think we can do better. It’s not a question of dropping that group, but we can add on. And ‘women’ is not a monolithic group.

The scope is moving.

Exactly, I think it can be broader. We want to look at that and use our resources to continue questioning the original mission while honoring it at the same time.

What do you think distinguishes A.I.R. from other initiatives for women artists?

Well, I think that continually seeking diversity and developing broad programing have been ways to not fall into a trap. When you become known for addressing a particular issue, everything can start to stagnate around it. Unless you are willing to either continue questioning your mission, or create new programming or, again, approach this issue of engagement, you run the risk of dying in some sense. One of the things that A.I.R. has done fairly well is to understand that we can’t get lazy around our issues, and that we must use our focus on women as a point of power and not of weakness. It’s easy to become “just a women’s organization”. It’s easy to be written off. So how do you not do that? We become more than just a women’s organization by being willing to examine and re–examine the issue of  marginalization.

In the end of the 80s, two curators – one Brazilian and one American, tried to do an exhibition called Conexus: Women artists, Brazilians and North Americans. But according to the author, Ana Barbosa, many women said they wouldn’t participate because they didn’t want to be associated with an exhibition only because they were women. What do you think about this interpretation?

This issue is really complex. I’m going to think out loud without giving you a canned answer.

Sounds great.

For me it’s easier, in some ways, to see this as a black person. It’s something that I go out into the world with everyday. It’s not something that is refutable. It’s just part of me. It’s part of my experience in the world. It’s part of my experience in this culture. It has implications for my life. And the life I lead is going to inform my work. It’s going to inform my relationships. I really can’t see how that cannot be so. So I can use that and take it in as something that is part of my experience and not something to be afraid of. Being a woman, for me, is the same thing. I think we run into trouble when we’re afraid. Of course, it has certain implications. It hurts to have to fight for space. To have to fight for visibility. But you can’t really pretend that it’s not true. You can’t pretend that being a woman, in this culture, does not have certain implications. When people say “I don’t want to be known as just a woman artist”, I understand that impulse, but that is a position of fear. That is not a position of power. You are afraid that you are going to make yourself vulnerable, putting yourself out there, and your experience may be limited in the eyes of other people. Not necessarily in your own eyes, but in the eyes of other people. You are afraid you are giving them the power to shut you down before you even say anything. That’s what fear is. That could happen to anyone. I think we can deal with that through conversations, and through the security of community. That’s the safeguard. The safeguard is that, you know, I can go to A.I.R. and if the environment is open enough, we can have discussions about how much it hurts, and what are we going to do about it. But I can’t necessarily have those conversations outside of certain safe zones. And I absolutely know, as a black woman, that there are certain really safe zones for me. They are zones of feeling and not thought. And being able to display my full range of personhood in those zones gives me the power to then go out and participate in making cultural shifts, which I do through making art and writing poetry. Which is what we want to do. So I think that you have to be able to go out there and claim the ways in which your life and your experiences may be different form the dominant idea of what it means to be human.

Do you think the art world is still sexist?

[Laugh]. Yes. One thing that I’ve learned, as an artist and as a poet is that there is this wonderful idea out there that the art world and the artists in it are all unconventional, funky, and eccentric. But the art world and the poetry world are really extremely conservative. And the reason why, especially in the art world, is that you’re dealing with luxuries. You are dealing with the intellectual. You are dealing with the highest expression of what it means to be human. And that territory will be ferociously guarded by the dominant group. If you want to break that down, you have to be extremely seditious, strong and clear about what you’re up against. So, yes, I see the art world essentially as extremely hostile to women and other marginalized groups.

In an Artnet News, RoseLee Goldberg said that “it’s also interesting that many of the most exciting organizations that give New York City its extraordinary texture are run by women”. Do you agree?

I think women in general have way more power than what they are using. Way more power than they admit to. I’m always frustrated by the ways in which women will shut themselves down before they are shut down. I’ll use the example of collecting women’s art. If we want the prices for women’s art to be higher, we need to increase women’s visibility in the art world. Part of that is a cycle of encouragement that we can control. Most of the people who come into the gallery, and most of the people that participate in the gallery, can actively support women artists in some way. Our annual Postcard Show offers original works of art for $40. That means that most of the people who enter our space can become a collector. If you honestly want to change the situation you need to participate in that change. The price to participate is low. I think we are at a cultural point where more people are willing to take control of the change.

So you fight for women artists but you also need women artists to be in that fight too, right?

That’s critical! That’s an issue of power. And I think it’s a mindset. If you believe that power resides outside yourself, then you are mostly lost. You have power. You go out everyday and do things. You are going to do something. So what are you going to do to change the situation? Women are still taught so young that power is outside themselves, that they need to be granted permission for almost everything; it’s really hard to change that script. We are at the point of dynamically, again, changing that script. We are at another point of real transition where there needs to be an understanding that the power is in us to make these changes. It’s not something that has to be given to us. For example, we can write about and document the shows that we put on to honor them and preserve a record. There are artists within the organization that can provide that function. The reason why I rewrote the mission is because I didn’t want to wait for somebody else to do that. We are actively engaged, powerful already! Actually, it’s not powerful: we are able. I’m able.

Which women artists would you highlight?

The last show that blew me away was the Kara Walker show, A Subtlety, at the Domino Sugar Factory. That was absolutely wonderful. I was familiar with her work, but this work was site-specific, and I think that art, at its best, is not in a museum or gallery, but rather an environment in which it is more alive, where it’s integrated into some lived experience – in a home, in a building, in a commercial space – conflated with the experience of the space itself. It was a multilayer commentary, really rich,  addressing contemporary issues of gentrification. It also touched every single sense. As you approached the exhibition, you could smell the sugar before you were even inside the space.

What about A.I.R.’s artists?

We recently had a memorial show of Regina Granne’s work, which was beautiful. In my first show in A.I.R., I remember Regina had a show at the same time, and she and her husband Martin were hanging the work for hours and I could hear snippets of their conversation. I was so moved by that, just hearing how they were going about it, working together. So I was familiar with certain work of hers. She passed away in January of 2013. She was a long time member of the gallery, very political, so seeing so much of her work at once, such a wide range of subjects and techniques, was fabulous. And the styles of work at A.I.R. are so different. Overall, again, we need to work on engagement with the public, be more ambitious. More ambitious about the kinds of work that we do, and how it is presented to the public. A.I.R. artists are making sophisticated artistic statements, but we can pursue higher levels of perception, in terms of how we get the artists’ visions out there. Part of the creative process is the feedback that pushes you to do your next best thing. Again, that is a feminist issue for me. I think that men have historically gotten (and aggressively pursued) that feedback much more, the encouragement that allows you to get to the next level.

Conscious of their own power.

Yes, but for that you need the feedback. Even if it’s critical. It’s what allows you to recalibrate your mind, and make the next push. If you don’t get that, you can be really, really good, but you stay in the same place. Opting for that continual vulnerability is a choice, one that can lead to tremendous growth.

And that’s the importance of A.I.R.

Yes. Often I say – I should write it down – that my entire job is creating openness. It looks like it’s these other things – keeping track of the gallery’s finances, buying wine for the receptions, helping with the installations – but that’s not really what it is. It’s creating an environment where we can discuss really, really difficult things. We don’t always agree, but the gallery is a place where everyone, even the quietest person, feels that they can contribute. If art is evidence of the degree to which you are free, then an environment in which you feel free is the ultimate medium. At its best, A.I.R. is such a place.

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Yvette Drury Dubinsky ‘Tondos, Tornadoes, Torpedoes’ A.I.R. May 2015 – Source: A.I.R. Facebook

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