Artist Joan Snitzer talks about her experience as director of women’s co-op gallery A.I.R., in New York, during the 70s. Professor and Director of the Visual Arts in the Department of Art History at Barnard College/Columbia University, Snitzer also speaks about sexism in the art world, participation of women in it and art history.
How was the art scene when A.I.R. was founded?
I think in 1972, when A.I.R. started, women had no choice but to be activist and mind feminist causes and organizations, because there were no other places to exhibit or to be heard. I wasn’t there in 1972 but I was there in 1974. There was a small art community in New York. There was a recession in the United States, and the city was on its way to bankruptcy, and the price of living here was very low. A.I.R.’s rent in Soho was 125 dollars a month for a large ground floor gallery space. There was no exhibiting market. I don’t know if you can imagine but there were artists that worked in the kitchen because no one had a studio. You didn’t have the money. So then these group of women who knew each other – to be honest, a lot of them had husbands that were writers, artists, and curators, so they were informed – got together and said “let’s make this cooperative gallery”. It was a very inexpensive adventure, the collective dues were 25 dollars a month, and they renovated the gallery space themselves. It was that time – “do it yourself”. It was easy construction, they put the walls up, they had help from some friends and they were young and active. So they made this gallery in SoHo, a neighborhood which already had some galleries, but not many. It was a very different scene. A.I.R. became one of these 10 galleries that you would go to. And people started to go. First because they knew the husbands and then because of the gallery and its interesting work. Every show was reviewed in well-known publications. Sales didn’t make that much but you could live on very little. It wasn’t expensive. At that point people were very happy to have an exhibition in this community. A.I.R. started to grow. Some of the artists sold their work but it was less common. In the 70’s, people didn’t think about selling work. You didn’t need to sell your work because living expenses were low and there were public grants available. Space, rent and funding was all relatively accessible, because there was a lot less competition with artists and galleries.
And how did you join A.I.R?
Well, I was going to college here in New York Pratt Institute. It was around 1974, I guess, and I was a good painter, I was doing realistic painting and I loved it. But then I started to do abstract paintings, and this male professor came to me and said: “Men do abstraction, women do representation. Go back to flowers”. You know, it was a big classroom full of students! A friend of mine, a classmate, came to me and said: “I’ve just been to SoHo and I saw this gallery that was all-women”. So I rushed to it! (laugh) I ran in it! The moment I walked through the door I felt different than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. People were friendly and talking to me. I immediately signed up to volunteer. I didn’t want to leave. It was a magical space. And when I graduated from college they hired me as the director. I was represented there in many group shows. I never had a solo show, but I was somebody that went there every day. I learned how to run a gallery! (laugh)
What were the main challenges A.I.R. faced in its history?
In the beginning it was all utopia. It was exhilarating, there was nothing like it. Nobody could believe how successful it was. You had a show, people came, we were written about. For a woman who was working and who was teaching, this was an exciting thing. The challenge came later, when people wanted a monetary recognition, which they were seeing in commercial galleries. There weren’t many commercial galleries, but a few artists were able to not have another job and live on the sales of their artwork. They weren’t traveling around the world, of course, they were still at home in the studio working. The demands on a professional artist to produce and sell were very different. The cost of living was still low.
What do you think about the interpretation that all-women practices can isolate women?
I think it shifts. I think around the 80s the American economy was thriving and the art market changed dramatically. It became an art industry and there were a lot of galleries opening and a lot of people supporting them. People didn’t consider it a choice to stay as an activist or in a non-profit organization, they considered it a “fail”, as if you had no place in the commercial galleries. There were so many new galleries looking for new artists. So it became a little bit of an issue to be still fighting for feminist ideology. I think it cost more because, supposedly, there was a greater representation of women. In general I think feminism or the idea of being in a women’s group seemed a bit of a failure at that time. And people didn’t want to be associated with all-women, they wanted to be seen equally. I think there were ambitious women and they didn’t want to be seen as somebody who wasn’t good enough. I think it happened in many fields, not only in art. I think by the 90s it turned again. Women realized although there was a token representation of women, the realities were still very drastically un-equal and feminism became an issue again. There was this new surge of women’s issues and they became more complex. The economy became more complex. Division between the wealthy and the poor… it was no longer inexpensive to live in New York and to maintain a practice. It became really difficult to have your life and art going on here. I think that’s when people started to think “Wait, this is not right”. So in that period was this “in-between”, when people thought it was a failure to say, “I’m in a women’s group”, as if things had changed. But they hadn’t.
Joan Snitzer: ”The Red Studio” – A.I.R. Gallery, 2013. Source: http://joansnitzer.com/
In the gallery documents at Fales Library it’s possible to see that the institution history is built in meetings, discussions, voting and different ways to organize the institution dynamics. How was it like this decision-making process? Cause it seems very democratic and organized, but it can also be overwhelming.
Yes, it was very overwhelming. And I think what you saw could also be a little bit inconsistent. It depended on the note taker of the day, and it was pre-digital age also.
Yes, sometimes these notes were hand written.
Most of the time they were. Not everybody had a typewriter. It was really a challenge to work with the needs of 20 women with different ideas of what art is and with very different art practices. It still is a challenge. You are united by a cause of wanting to change culture in favor of women, but what that means for each woman is varied. This has to do with people’s social, religious, cultural and economic backgrounds. The language didn’t always expand to everybody’s vocabulary. And then you are talking about a lot of artists.
How were A.I.R.’s meetings?
The meetings were chaotic and funny. There was almost an illogical ideology about these decisions. They were very passionate. Some members were very clear about how the organization could grow and work and there were some other members that still had this idea about the artist being this isolated genius individual. So you have these different positions and of course they are going to collide. I’m so impressed that anything got done! (laugh). I used to sit there – I was often a note taker – and I was just amazed that there was still respect and love for each other and somehow at the end things would be voted and resolved and people would maintain the collective. These women would actually come to compromises and to understandings. The people would accept the majority rules and they felt the next time their position would be considered and it would shift. It shifted and it was kind of beautiful and fun. There were some heated discussions but nobody got mean. This was the difference: people still wanted to go forward and they were willing to concede their positions for the better of the cause.
Do you think A.I.R.’s mission changed over the years?
I think that the outside view has changed – the necessity of a women’s collective within a now huge art industry, and what it means to pay dues instead of being represented by a gallery. Those perceptions from the outside have changed, but, honestly, from the inside, I think that the heart and soul of A.I.R. and the commitment to keep this position for women moving forward has not changed. It’s amazing. The passion in A.I.R. meetings is so incredible. The belief that this organization for women has a purpose- it needs to survive. The meetings back then and now are almost identical. The issues have changed and finances certainly have changed but people are still devoted to the idea. It’s really amazing to be a part of.
Did A.I.R. have an impact in your career?
Yes and no. It gave me the basic fundamentals of what the problems were of being a women artist early on as a student. It gave me a structure to understand what I was going to face as a woman artist. Also it gave me the support to achieve it. It gave me the opportunity to exhibit and to have that space for myself and to see how the public responded to the projects. Also they had deadlines and you always work harder if you know there’s going to be an exhibit. I think people don’t understand that so well if they are not working in schedule and deadlines. It’s a different kind of energy.
Joan Snitzer, 2013. Mixed media on paper. 9×12 in. Source: http://joansnitzer.com/
Do you think the art world is still sexist?
Yes, absolutely. I think I can even speak since I’ve been teaching women – and very smart and successful women – for almost 30 years. I know what they face when they start their careers. My students have become successful artists, curators, art writers and gallerists. They have done every aspect of the art community, so I know the art world is still quite sexist. There are still attitudes towards women that are different. I think it is still very much controlled by the white male system. There are people trying and there are new ideas going on, but sometimes I worry that this is not a real structure change in the system. This year, for the first time the director of the Venice Biennial is an African man, and the program boasts at least 25% of the artists exhibited are black, so this is a big change but is that a token gesture or is it really a change? It is yet to be seen.
What do you think is the question for women in the arts today?
I think they are all questioning where their places are and how to maintain a personal and artistic integrity and also an artistic sensibility. I have been discussing this with my students: if you want to be successful, and our history has a male sensibility history, you are almost forced to create works that appeal to that image. And women have different senses and sensibilities and concerns and they tend to be isolated because they are not part of the dominant aesthetic. If you want to make something soft, gentle and pretty then you are already marginalized because that would be women stuff. So how do you maintain honesty and artistic rigor as a woman and as a creator if you have to separate that part?
Then do you think we should deconstruct stereotypes? Or how would we deal with this question?
For me, we deal with it with a much stronger network of women who are supporting women in the system. And that isn’t in place in the way men support men. They’ve helped each other out forever, they’ve gathered forever and they don’t even think about it because this is so much a part of how they are oriented. Women are still more isolated. They aren’t in positions of power if they are not aligned with powerful men. So they tend to isolate themselves from strong networks of women. As women become more powerful, I think they also need to change sensibilities of how to relate to their fellow women and build something that is valuable and consciously become aware of their position as role models. The culture changes, the world changes, society’s tastes changes, but human nature doesn’t change. So we have to change the perception of women, and what constitutes success.
As a professor, do you think American Art History has a debt with women artists?
Yes. We inherited western Europe sensibility – not eastern Europe, which had solidarity for women and things were slightly different there before the economic situation changed. So even American art was undervalued compared to European art until 1945. The position of women was even more difficult in some ways. American’s ideals about individualism and ability to have social and economic mobility helped some of these women succeed, but it didn’t help their art practices because the American idea of individualism conflicts with the idea of collective networks.
Joan Snitzer – CO203. 2014. Acrylic, photo ink, and vinyl on birch panel. 36x48in. Source: http://joansnitzer.com/