Q+A: A.I.R. Gallery

If you’ve ever been to a First Thursday Art Walk or strolled through the Front Street Galleries, chances are you visited some awesome exhibitions at A.I.R. Gallery. Founded in 1972, A.I.R. Gallery is the first all-women artist-directed art gallery in the United States. The gallery is governed by 22 New York artists who are also in charge of curating and installing their own exhibitions. In addition to exhibits, A.I.R. Gallery hosts lectures, discussions, and performances to give women artists endless opportunities to interact with others in the art community. We sat down with JoAnne McFarland and Jacqueline Ferrante, the lovely ladies who manage A.I.R. Gallery, to learn more about this exciting gallery space in DUMBO.

Tell us the story behind A.I.R. Gallery.

Jacqueline: A.I.R. Gallery is an all-women nonprofit collective that started in 1972. Artists came together because women didn’t have a place to exhibit their work.

JoAnne: Susan Williams and Barbara Zucker were the first two artists to say, "We need to do something about this situation." They were looking for a way to gain visibility and create community among themselves. A.I.R. stands for Artist in Residence. At that time in 1972 in New York, artists were starting to occupy commercial space, particularly in the SoHo area. There were signs around saying "Artists in Residence" so that the fire department would know that artists were living in these spaces. I like to think of our gallery as women taking up space in a marketplace that was hostile towards them.

Jacqueline: We have developed a lot of different programs since our start in 1972. Our 12-month fellowship program is designed for emerging or under represented artists and allows artists to exhibit their work in a solo show. Our fellowship artists also create a community project, which can be a discussion, a demo, or a performance piece. These community projects serve as a way for fellowship artists to give back to the gallery and create a setting where people can learn something new and art-related.

JoAnne: For example, our fellowship artist Jay Moorthy held an "Art Fast" for her community project. She borrowed the idea of fasting from the Navrathri festival in India and applied it to the art-making experience by asking artists to give up something about their art practice. At the end of the festival, everyone came together to discuss their experiences.

One of the things that we think is so wonderful about A.I.R. is that the artists have control over their work they show and how it is presented... which makes for a different kind of investment and a different sense of community.

JoAnne McFarland, Director of Exhibitions & Operations at A.I.R. Gallery

What are the challenges of asking the artists curate their own work?

JoAnne: One of the things that we think is so wonderful about A.I.R. is that the artists have control over their work they show and how it is presented. They can pursue the media if they want to. They are in control of the press release, their artist statement, and the opening. All of these things are artist-directed, which makes for a different kind of investment and a different sense of community. A.I.R. is for artists who want to embrace that type of control.

Jacqueline: We try to let the artists do something that they wouldn’t typically do in a commercial venue. We give them the opportunity to take risks and try something new.

Would you be able to talk about some of the upcoming exhibits in September?

Jacqueline: We have a lot of exciting things coming up in September! On Governor’s Island, we will host "If These Walls..." which will show 27 artists’ works in one of the old houses in Nolan Park. It will be fun to install because we’ve never shown on Governor’s Island before. We’ll also host a closing reception on Saturday September 27th with a guest performance by artist Katya Grokhovsky outside of the house.

JoAnne: In the galleries, we will have three solo exhibitions in September. Gallery I will host Joan Snitzer’s "Compositions." She uses a lot of grids in her work and in this exhibit, they are overlaid with beautiful, translucent images from contemporary life. Gallery II will show Elizabeth Munro Smith’s "Family Secrets," which will include both 2D and 3D work. It demonstrates some of the ways that families interact and will borrow from some of her personal history. Gallery III will hold Julia Westerbeke’s "Morphology," which will be her first exhibition in New York City.

Shifting gears, what do you enjoy about working in DUMBO?

Jacqueline: I love DUMBO. My favorite spot to go is in between the two bridges in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s a very nice community where everyone is so friendly and very creative. There are so many different galleries here in this building and then Smack Mellon is just down the block. The street art is also really cool.

JoAnne: I’ve lived in Brooklyn since 1982, so I have seen Brooklyn go through a lot of changes. I love how the neighborhoods change from one to the other so dramatically. Walking from Brooklyn Heights to DUMBO, you notice there’s something about DUMBO that feels very oversized. As you are walking here, you see that the bridges and buildings are so much taller than what you can see in other parts of Brooklyn. I think the name DUMBO fits because it feels really big. Also, the sound in DUMBO is different from anywhere else in the city because there are elevated trains going overhead all the time and it’s really loud! There’s this constant vibration of these trains overhead, the bridges, tourists walking on the bridge, people asking for directions. There’s a liveliness in this intersection and it makes the neighborhood fun and alive, as if it vibrates.

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