Interview with Jenn Dierdorf, A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship and Development Director

Jenn Dierdorf, A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship and Development Director, speaks about the organization goals, challenges of running a co-op gallery and different aspects of participation of women in the art scene. Dierdorf is also an artist and member of ARTTABLE and the College Art Association, as well as a coordinator for The Feminist Art Project. “Our job is not just about providing an exhibition opportunity, it’s also about empowering women and giving them the tools and resources and confidence to do what they want to do”, says Dierdorf.

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You have participated of Soho20, The Feminist Art Project, A.I.R. and other experiences that are focused on women in the arts. How did you get close with this subject?

I’ve been a feminist my whole life, so it was always something that interest me, politically and personally.  After grad school I moved to New York and when searching for a job, the SoHo20 opportunity was the first thing that even presented itself after a month of looking for work. That was through a professor of mine from Connecticut, so it kind of just set one thing after another. It turned out to be a really good entry into the art community of NYC and also a good fit for what they were looking for.

And how did you get in A.I.R.?

In part, from the reputation I had developed at SoHo20.  During the 5+ years I was there I was able to initiate new programming, broaden their audience and secure city and state funding as well as help execute several successful fundraising events. At A.I.R. they had a strong staff but they didn’t have anyone doing development. The organization was poised to grow its operational budget and has a lot of momentum behind it with an upswing of feminism in the art world and mainstream media.  Also, I have the best job in the world! I’m paid a living wage with health benefits and a flexible schedule, I work with creative and compassionate artists and never deal with sexism at work.  It’s incredible!

What do you think are the similarities and differences of A.I.R. and SoHo20?

They are identical, down to the operational budget. There is a bit of a stigma around the “artist-run” model and it is frequently misunderstood.  Both of these organizations are composed hardworking individuals who seek community, support and visibility for their work and creative practice.  They volunteer countless hours to running the gallery and working together for a larger mission of supporting women in the arts. Each organization has a rigorous application process and the quality of work exhibited is high. As with many non-profits orgs, they both struggle with funding, sales and publicity. Rather than examining these two similar institutions, I think its more important to look at how they compare to commercial spaces or even other collective models.  Because they rely on membership they were protected in many ways from the 2008 recession and so survived that rough patch that ended the stride for many commercial spaces.

You said in another interview about SoHo20 that having men participate with the gallery was important. What do you think about A.I.R. context, being an all-women organization?

To clarify, both SOHO20 and A.I.R. are only open to women-identified artists for membership and each has other opportunities that are open to the general public, men and women.  As for men participating in the gallery, yes I feel it is very important.  The more inclusive the gallery can be; economically, racially, geographically, the more we can bring visibility and value to marginalized groups through feminism as a vehicle. Feminism is a human rights issue. It concerns everyone and the more we work together to rectify the injustices we face the better we will be. 

What are the most challenging parts of running a cooperative gallery?

It is probably the range of different voices that I have to delicately juggle all at the same time. Trying to navigate and hear everybody, but still make choices that serve the gallery, the staff and the members as a whole. It’s an interesting kind of leadership role.  I work for more than 70 people, but at the same time I have to lead and take things in a direction that is best for the business and our mission.  And not all the members are at A.I.R. for the same reason.  Some artists want to find community, some want to have a solo exhibition, some want to be part of the history and legacy of the gallery.  There’s also a wide range of skills, availability, etc so the staff is a very important part to having cohesion and consistency at the gallery. 

Is the gallery mainly funded by the dues?

It used to be, but now dues don’t cover the entire cost of running the gallery.  In addition to dues, we receive individual donations, grants, foundation contributions, we host fundraising exhibitions and events and are planning an annual benefit starting in Spring 2016.

What do you think A.I.R. still has to achieve or work on? What’s the challenge today?

We have to work on being diverse and inclusive. I think the biggest weakness of the gallery is that we still serve a narrow demographic of a certain racial and economic class. We have to be able to serve more women.  Maintaining the gallery is also a constant task. We must remain relevant and on the edge of what is important and needed for our society. That means constantly reassessing our agency and listening to our audience to know whether we are effective and to always strive to be better.

Why do you think today, more than 40 years after the creation of SoHo20 and A.I.R., it is still important to have institutions focused on women artists?

Well. There is still a lack of opportunity for women to exhibit their work. There is still a huge disproportion in sales, the in primary and secondary market between art by men and women – women make considerably less money. And that’s just some of what’s happening in the art world.  So our job is not just about providing an exhibition opportunity, it’s also about empowering women and giving them the tools and resources and confidence to do what they want to do. This is also what makes it worth doing.  This is a political stance.  We empower women to make their own choices about their careers and to take advantage of resources, to know where to find the resources in the first place.  All of this is tied together and is being done through the vehicle of art.

What do you think is the agenda for women today? What are the questions for today?

There are certainly plenty of issues. Pay equality, health care rights, violence against women.  Even the general bias we as a society have against women is so subversive and so dangerous. Women are taught their whole lives this false idea of feminine expectation and that their only power is in their body.  Women inevitably come up against this throughout their lives and it can be very damaging to navigate.  A few years ago I participated in an event with “A Feminist Tea Party”, a performative project by Suzanne Stroebe and Caitlin Reuter where I led a conversation on a topic of my choosing.  I wanted to discus how people negotiate aspects of main stream culture that they like but that also may carry a derogatory message, in this case misogyny.  This blatant offensiveness can be found in movies, music, art, etc. but our conversation was specifically about hip hop and the message that certain artists promote in their music. I feel like it is important to bring attention to these omnipresent happenings because they are so embedded in our lives that they easily become acceptable and they are not ok. It sends a very bad message and people should be angry that they are fed these lies.

Does the experience in A.I.R. and Soho20 affect your own work, as a painter – or the other way around?

I think yes, to some degree yes. My painting is not often political but because feminism is such a big part of my life and work, and something I care about so strongly, it does work its way in to it.  At the same time – to me feminism is not always about flag waving and activism.  I try to demonstrate my feminist beliefs through the way I live my life, and trying to find the best way I can to confronting the sexism around me. Being a part of these organizations has also greatly enriched my experience as an artist.  I have a vast network of artists that I rely on and get so much out of my relationship with.  It’s incredibly valuable to me.

What is The Feminist Art Project about?

The Feminist Art Project is based at Rutgers University and under the direction of Connie Tell. It’s a non-profit entity that acts as a resource for women in the arts on a local and national level. With chapters based all around the country, TFAP groups hosts individual events for various communities and meets annually at the College Art Association conferences.  Also at the CAA meetings, TFAP sponsors a full day of panel discussions on a feminist topic that is free and open to the public, unlike many CAA panels.  I helped organize the panels in 2015 with my co-coordinators damali abrams and Kathleen Wentrack on the topic of collaboration in art.  It was an extraordinary event with dozens of participants including Dread Scott, Kalliopi Minoudaki, Katherine Behar, Susan Bee, Joyce Kozloff, A.K. Burns, members from the collective  HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, and many others. Video of the panels can be viewed here  TFAP is a helpful network of women working in the arts and providing support to others in the field.

This network characteristic is very common in women’s organization, to build this sense of community.

Yes, it’s almost like Craigslist or Facebook. There are different versions of it, but essentially they are all about communicating and helping each other. At A.I.R. we have monthly meetings to discuss business but these are also important for the group dynamic.  There are many different practices and personalities at the gallery and it’s important to maintain respect and compassion among the group.  We are fortunate to have such intelligent and insightful artists at the gallery and we depend as much on their skills and help as they do on us.


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