Interview with Jane Swavely

Artist Jane Swavely talks about the New York art scene today and in the 1980s, A.I.R.’s role as an empowering organization for women and her work as president of the board of directors of the gallery, her artistic research,and women in the art world.


How did you join AIR? How was the beginning of your history with the institution?

Ever since I moved to New York in 1980, I had been aware of A.I.R. in SoHo. I had tremendous respect for what the women of A.I.R. were doing, but it never occurred to me that I would consider joining a collective. The art community was much smaller at the time.

It wasn’t until much later, after my dealer shuttered her gallery space, and realized just how huge the art world had become, that the collective looked very interesting to me. Joan Snitzer, my good friend and upstairs neighbor on the Bowery, had become active in A.I.R. and along with Susan Bee encouraged me to apply 4 years ago. 

I saw in your CV you’ve been exhibiting since the early 80s. How do you think this art scene has changed, and how do you think it has changed for women?

I was an assistant to Brice Marden and Lois Lane, a new image painter, at the time. It never occurred to me that there was an issue with being a woman in a male dominated field. I guess I was extremely naïve and complacent coming on the heels of feminism’s first wave. I felt empowered and took things for granted. As a young artist I was showing at an early age; in my mid twenties I had my first solo show. In the early 80s a young artist could come to New York, work as an assistant, attend to art school, and find a modest living/work space in a borderline neighborhood in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

The real estate situation in New York is so difficult now and affordable studio space is very hard to find. The competition for space and attention is tremendous. In order to have studio space artists have to go from residency to residency. To find A.I.R. and this community of people kind of shrinks things down. It gives you sort of a base; the ability to do whatever you want outside of that, but you always have a safe space to experiment and to share what you want to show without necessarily worrying about the market.

The number of gallery spaces has exploded, of course, and New York is no longer the only center of the art world. The experimental has become mainstream. It’s also interesting that art education has changed too, along with art practices. Since the 80’s, critical thinking curriculum has become a central component of an art school education.

And before the curriculums were more technical?

Mine was. I went to Boston University School for the Arts, which is very traditional, and then I went to School of Visual Arts. I didn’t go to grad school. Not everyone in the art field went to grad school at that time – I remember when a friend decided to go to grad school and I thought: “Why did she decide to do that?” (laugh). And now it seems you have to be credentialed.. I had a favorite teacher at SVA who hadn’t even finished his undergrad. He was a really great painter and teacher.

In Brazil it’s the same. In the art space I used to work in they were unable to write an exhibition project for a grant because the artist who would show didn’t have a diploma, and it was a required document for the application. It was crazy because he has this amazing career but not a degree, and because of that they couldn’t apply.

Isn’t that crazy? I was at an art fair here in New York, I guess it was NADA, and I observed a guy really interested in an artist’s work, but before he would even commit to investigate it, he wanted to know where she went to school for her MFA and her whole CV was very important – it wasn’t the work or how he responded to the work, which was really compelling and beautiful.

You said you have been working very closely with JoAnne for the last two years in restructuring the staff, fundraising and facilitating the move to the new space. Can you tell a bit more about those changes?

I’ve been chair or president of the board of directors for the last two years during a period of change at the gallery. I’ve been so fortunate to work with JoAnne McFarland, who was our interim director, now Director of Exhibitions and Operations, and Jacqueline Ferrante our tireless Associate Director who had interned with us, and was initially our gallery assistant. Our two staff members left at the end of the season two years ago, and Joanne stepped in as interim Director, so we were trying to figure out things, we were looking for new director, trying to fund it. Joanne and I spent many late night brain storming sessions on the phone trying to work all this out. We had many emergency meetings of the executive committee and the members. We finally came up with a three person staff, co- directors; Jenn Dierdorf came on board as Director of the Fellowship and Development. There are a lot of personalities involved and it’s interesting to see people working together and how things settle out. I feel the gallery has been revitalized. There are different ideas coming all the time. We are all really supportive of each other; it’s a really exciting time. 

What is the Board of Directors?

 Unlike most of non-profits where they have the people that are in the gallery and they have a separate board of directors that raises money, A.I.R. New York members are the Board of Directors. We make our own decisions. We are fiscally responsible. It’s a huge responsibility on the members. And then there is the Executive Committee with 5 people and I’m the chair of that, which makes me the chair of the Board of Directors.

And how is the new gallery space? Do you like it? Because it wasn’t a decision of the gallery, right?

No, it wasn’t. But our landlord, Two Trees and their cultural director found us a beautiful, better space and was very helpful with the gallery’s move. It was hard with a few hurdles along the way, but it has been a successful move. I think they new space is amazing; it has a good energy!

Besides dues, what are the other ways A.I.R. finances itself?

With private donations, and grants and benefit parties. We have open calls and juried shows.

By the presentation of the Fellows 2015-2016 it’s possible to see it’s a very diverse group, different works and backgrounds.

Yes, and we are looking for ways to diversify even more. Especially in the new space – I think it works a lot as a community space, where people can drop by and maybe have programming to serve the community. We have a lot of ideas. We always have a lot of ideas!

Lack of ideas it’s not the problem (laugh). 

No, it’s not! We are very ambitious.

In a document written by Naomi Urabe about A.I.R.’s administration back in the 90s, she says that the committees should work closely with the Board of Directors, especially because of the power and influences of these directors. How is this relationship today?

We try to bring everything to the membership. Sometimes it’s not very efficient, but I feel like the members really have to vote the major things that happen. Its very democratic. In addition to monthly meetings, we have a day- long meeting at the end of the season where everybody comes together and we usually have almost 100% of the members there.

Are you still going to be president of the board of directors?

I’ve been asked to and I said one more year. It’s been just an amazing experience. When I say “empowering”, I really mean empowering. It’s incredible. The women are amazing. I love the diversity of age groups also. Women in their 20s to women in their 70s. I’ve made so many close friends through working on various projects. I’ve become really active and empowered in ways that I’d never imagined. It’s our gallery and as a group, we can call the shots. We can make things happen. I was always the last person to speak in a room and now I’m among the first.

What do you think is the organization challenge today?

The biggest challenge is real estate and money for financing our programming. Also making sure that we are relevant, that we really do have a safe space for women to be able to create all kinds of work and to take risks. I do feel that the community aspect is really important. We can learn so much from each other and share that insight with the community at large.

Do you think the art world is still sexist? 

Yes, I do, actually- although I think things are much better. It’s funny because when I first moved to

New York, that never occurred to me because the feminist movement had come through in the decade before, and I felt I was a beneficiary of it. Women are still paid less in the art world, and we are still the ones who are the caregivers. I think that a lot of progress has been made but there is still a lot to be done. Right now showing older “overlooked” women artists is a trend- there are a lot of panels recently and a recent article in the New York Times Magazine [link]. Hedda Sterne, an abstract expressionist, was one of the few women artists that got recognition, there is a cover of Life magazine from 1951, featuring an article about The Irascibles, and there were Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Barnett Newman all of those male artists on it – and Hedda Sterne standing in the back. In the New Whitney Museum there is a painting of hers next to a de Kooning. She had been forgotten. In the late 90s, my former dealer, Cara Sujo rediscovered her. She was in her 80s at that point. And she started showing her and had success with her, which I thought it was really wonderful. Now it seems to be a trend.

About your work with landscape – does it come from real experiences of yours?

Yes, it does. I have a very traditional background. I came to School of Visual Arts with a very academic figurative background, and the figures began to shrink until the finally disappeared and then it became pure landscape. I also spend a lot of the time in the country, we have a sailboat and we spend a lot of time in the water. It all informs my work. It all just comes in. They continue to be pared down even more.


Untitled Landscape, 2012, 56×162 inches, oil on canvas

Which kind of landscapes inspire you?

The ocean, living on the water, the mountains… right now walking in the woods and what it smells like… I’m really interested in the color, evoking the scents of landscapes. I love my materials and the actual physical making of a painting.

A physical experience.

Yes, and making the paintings is a physical performative experience. I work on the floor… its very much part of making a painting.

You said about your work “painting is about an implied dialogue with the viewer; what the viewer might bring”. What do people usually bring? Do you establish this interaction with audience?

 Hopefully something in the work triggers a feeling or a memory, even if its just a flicker of remembrance, and it creates an experience that frames the painting. I like the way film works too. I was doing series of paintings that were long sequences, like frames from a film. That was the last show I did. I feel that that’s how film works in an abstract way. But I don’t want to push the viewer to any direction. That’s why I rarely title my work.

Susan Bee spoke about something interesting in her interview, about feminist artists that worked with abstract paintings.

Yes, I read that too. I don’t consider myself a feminist artist – and that is one of the reasons why I thought I didn’t fit in at A.I.R., because my work is not political, it doesn’t address political issues. I came across this quote that I like, from Sarah Sze in the New Yorker, which is: “One of the freedoms that early feminists fought for was freedom of expectations that women make art about being a woman”. I love that. So to me it is just about doing what you want to do. I have so much respect for women that address social issues and political issues, I think it is important, but that is not part of my work.

Yes, Jenn Dierdorf also speaks about that – A.I.R. goal is not to present feminist art, but women artists.

Yes, for sure. It took me awhile to understand that.

Do you think there is a difference between men and women artistic sensibilities?

I don’t know about that. Probably. [Pause] But I mean, a painter whose work I really like, Cecily Brown – they talk about her work as being very masculine because she throws the paint around, and they call it muscular, that she paints like the boys. I see it as very feminine.





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