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SOHO20 Gallery was founded in 1973 by a group of 20 women artists intent on achieving professional excellence in an industry where there was a gross lack of opportunities for women to succeed. The founding members were: Elena Borstein, Cynthia Mailman, Barbara Coleman, Maureen Connor, Mary Ann Gillies, Joan Glueckman, Eunice Golden, Margaret Helenchild, Marion Ranyak, Rachel Rolon De Clet, Marilyn Raymond, Halina Rusak, Lucy Sallick, Morgan Sanders, Rosalind Shaffer, Sylvia Sleigh, Eileen Spikol, May Stevens, Suzanne Weisberg, and Sharon Wybrants-Lynch. These fore-thinking and industrious women created an artist-run organization devoted to the mission of increasing public awareness of the excellence and diversity of women’s art. SOHO20’s first news release in October 1973 stated, “In keeping with the feminist ideal of women defining themselves, the criterion for membership is professional excellence without restriction of style, medium, or theme. Twenty one-woman shows are planned which will demonstrate the variety of means and images through which women artists have chosen to express themselves.” The Gallery was located at 99 Spring Street in Soho, downtown New York City, the center of the art world.
SOHO20 was one of the first galleries in Manhattan to showcase the work of an all-woman membership and most of the members joined the organization as emerging artists. These artists were provided with the exhibition opportunities they couldn’t find elsewhere and as a result gained abundant recognition through their involvement with the gallery. Many SOHO20 artists have been repeatedly cited for their artistic achievements in publications such as The New York Times, The Village Voice, Arts Magazine, The Soho Weekly News, and Craft Horizons. An October 1973 Village Voice article about Sylvia Sleigh stated: “The nude portrait and nude male portrait by a woman artist is one of Sleigh’s strongest accomplishments. Invention of any new genre is never exact, but occurs within a context; in this case, feminism and art history.” In 1980, Arts Magazine reviewed former emerging artist, and current gallery member, Eve Ingalls, claiming, “if the 70’s has been a decade of new exploration, and I think it was, then Ingalls’ work is like a watermark, a stamp of importance upon the current art terrain.” Some notable artists who have benefited from participating in exhibitions at SOHO20 are Sana Musasama, Maron Hassinger, Clare Moore, Lil Picard and Jane Teller, as well as architects Anne King, May Callas and Sarah Harkness.
In the 1980’s the benefits and effectiveness of SOHO20 and other artist-run galleries were widely discussed in art publications. Artspeak focused on the impact that SOHO20 had in establishing artist’s careers, where “some artists retain membership here while also being in private galleries; Sylvia Sleigh and Elena Borstein at SOHO20 and May Stevens at Lerner Heller have found the added exposure of great benefit.” 
In 1982, the gallery was achieving consistent success and receiving ample media attention. The members decided to move to a new space at 469 Broome Street, another location in Soho, and as the then SOHO20 Gallery Coordinator Reine Hauser wrote, “By inviting other women to exhibit, the members shared and broadened their experiences.” International exchanges started in 1990 with artists showing in Germany with the support of the Goethe House. In 1998, member Eleonora Tammes and her husband Orson van de Plassche secured fundings from the Mondrian Foundation, the Anjer Foundation, Merryl Lynch Bank and the Netherlands America Foundation that unable SOHO20 members to exhibit in Amsterdam at the De ZAAIJER Gallery. The show got reviewed in the main newspapers (DE VOLKSKRANT, NRC HANDELSBLAD, ALGEMEEN DAGBLAD and was featured on chanel ATV ( Amsterdam TV). Built to serve the public and create opportunities for underrepresented artists, SOHO20 Gallery gained legal, non-profit 501© 3 status in 1989. This new status enabled the gallery to receive funding from the New York State Council on the Arts for the two exhibition series: “Emerging Women Artists” and “Senior Women Artists, Ageless Perceptions.” Both of which ran for four years and were highly attended.
By this time SOHO20 had become known for featuring exhibits that exposed relevant social and political issues. In 1985 “Private Gone Public”, was reviewed in The New York Times, “Another show of work by six ‘gut issue’ artists – all women – assembled by the art critic Ellen Lubell…(Bonnie) Lucas makes clever assemblages of baby clothes and female fripperies – laces, ribbons, glitter, fake jewelry, etc. – in not-so-demure compositions that put down accepted female roles.” In 1990, an exhibition curated by artist Faith Ringgold was a tribute to civil rights workers killed in 1964, "Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, The Mississippi Three: The Struggle Continues." This exhibit featured works by six African-American women artists making public their personal reflections about the deaths of these civil rights workers, and about the continuing struggle for civil rights in America. Accompanying this 1990 exhibit was a “mail art” show of 400 works by 200 artists from South Africa. Organized and curated by SOHO20 member Janet Goldner, “South African Mail: Images From Inside” later traveled and was exhibited in other gallery locations in the U.S.
Next in 1990, SOHO20 presented the exhibit “Blacklisted/Whitewashed and Red Handed,” which featured works related to issues of censorship, funding restrictions, and 1st Amendment rights after funding for the National Endowment for the Arts had been cut. This exhibit of painting and sculpture by SOHO20 artists and artist/interns from Washington Irving High School in New York City united the visions of adult and youth artists. Later that same year, the Organization of Asian Women and SOHO20 Gallery presented an art auction of works by Asian artists (including Martin Wong, Yung Soon Min, Arlen Huang and Helen Oji) to benefit the New York Asian Women’s Center, a center that addresses the problem of mistreated women in Asian-American communities. And in 1994, with “Effect or Infect: Art and Ecology,” SOHO20 hosted an invitational exhibit of work that addressed the fragile state of world ecology.
Since 1994, SOHO20 has released an annual call for artists for the “Annual International Exhibit of Women’s Art.” Juried by notable artists and curators such as Clare Bell (Assistant Curator, Guggenheim Museum Soho), Charlotta Kotik (Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum), Evelyn Hankins (Assistant Curator, Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art), Judy Hecker (Assistant Curator, MOMA), Fereshteh Daftari (Assistant Curator, MOMA), Lilian Tone (Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, MOMA), Carrie Springer (Senior Curatorial Assistant, Whitney Museum of American Art) Chakaia Booker, Sculptor, Phong Bui, Artist and Curator and publisher of the Brooklyn Rail arts journal, Dean Daderko (Curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston). This exhibit has given more than 300 artists worldwide the opportunity to exhibit at SOHO20 Gallery and awarded annually a solo exhibition for the “best in Show”.
The gallery moved to a third location at 545 Broadway in 1996, staying in Soho, and then relocated to 511 West 25th Street in Chelsea at the end of 2001. The gallery continued its rotating schedule of exhibitions, as well as working with literary artists, including Linda Nochlin, who read her poetry at SOHO20 during this time. Between 2003 and 2010 SOHO20 also hosted events led by the organization Artists Talk on Art (ATOA). Weekly ATOA panel discussions featured topics such as: Dialogue on Digital Art, Trends in Book Art, Overview of the Art for Transit Program, What is Fine Art?, and Museums and Alternative Spaces, among many others. These events brought together panelists from different disciplines: established artists, critics, dealers, gallery directors, museum curators and community leaders, as well as a broad cross section of audience members from New York.
In an effort to give back and use art to promote awareness and understanding of global issues SOHO20 members have often used their exhibition opportunities to help others. In 2005, artist Nelleke Nix had a solo benefit exhibit entitled, “Lions Share,” all net proceeds from “Lions Share” were donated to bovine tuberculosis research, and medicine for the lions of South Africa to curb the spread of the deadly disease. Also in 2005, Lucy Hodgson’s exhibition, “Undercurrents” donated sales proceeds to Mercy Corps for Tsunami Victim Aid. And 2005 ended with an invitational exhibit, “Small Works,” for which artist members invited other artists to exhibit for the month of December. Portions of proceeds from the sales during “Small Works” were donated to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund.
Continuing with feminist inspired exhibitions, SOHO20 organized in 2007 a juried exhibit in conjunction with the Feminist Art Project through Rutgers University, “Adam’s Rib, Eve’s Air In Her Hair”, a concept exhibit examining the many forms of Eve (female identity) and a Latin American Art exhibit, “Fuerza Argentinos” featuring a group of female Argentinean artists, most of whom were receiving little artistic recognition beyond Argentina.
In 2008 SOHO20 hosted their first all woman video show entitled, “ Boxing Gloves and Bustiers,” which was juried by video and performance artist Kate Gilmore. Then in late 2009, the gallery relocated to its fifth and present location on West 27th street.
SOHO20 has also been host to various film screenings, such as “LOOK HERE, a portrait of Sylvia Sleigh” in 2010. This documentary on SOHO20 founding member and figure of the feminist art movement of the 60’s/70’s, was followed by a discussion with Sylvia Sleigh, film maker/actress Paula Ewin and moderated by artist and curator Kathryn McFadden.
That same year, artist Diane Churchill put together a series of talks and dialogues entitled, “INTERNATIONAL FOCUS-Women in Crisis” dealing with human right’s issues such as sex trafficking, child soldiers and genital mutilation. Later the series adopted a broader name, “CONVERSATIONS,” and continued with experts speaking on a variety of topics including “Voices of Muslim Women”, a talk between activist Robina Niaz and artist member Aphodite Navab. In 2010, the series continued with “What’s Old is New Again: The legacy of the feminist art movement of the 70’s,” with Harriet Lyons and artists Damali Abrams, Orly Cogan, Donna Dodson, and Chris Twomey, as well as a discussion around Hester Eisenstein’s book, “Feminism Seduced; How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World” with artists Karen Frostig and Suzanne Stroebe, and in 2013, with “Louise Nevelson: Empress Of Environmental Sculpture” with author, art historian and psychoanalyst Laurie Wilson, and artists Gisela Insuaste and Julie Schenkleberg.
Since 1994, through donations from Marsh and McClennan, Adeline Hazard Perkins and other private and Fiduciary Trust donations, SOHO20 funded 15 fellowships providing deserving women artists with full member benefits for 2 years without the financial obligation usually associated with membership. A memorial exhibition of works by long time member Ellen Hoffman was hosted at the end of 2009, and at the same time SOHO20 renamed the fellowship program, the “Ellen Hoffman Fellowship Fund” in Ms. Hoffman’s memory.
“Savoir-Faire” began in 2009 as a platform for women performance artists to realize never before seen projects. Now in its fifth year, this invitational program created and curated by gallery director Jenn Dierdorf, offers a place for each artist to develop and present their work to a live audience. Through “Savoir-Faire,” SOHO20 draws out the playful, experimental, and powerfully delicious aspects of artistic inquiry to reassess and redefine our perceptions about art, life, and the roles of women in each.
Implemented around the same time was the Artist Studio Residency Program providing selected artists with a studio for 3 months and participation in Open Studio events. Artists in Residence have included Naoko Ito, Amanda Buonocore, Krista Peters, Allyson Ross, Ginny Huo, GO! PUSH POPS (Katie Cercone and Elisa Garcia de la Huerta), Lisette Morel, Anne Percoro, and in 2013, So Yeon Park, Caitlin Baucom and Golnar Adili. Other outreach programs include “SIGHT unSEEN,” an ongoing series of gallery tours through the Chelsea Arts district. Led by guest curators, writers and artists “SIGHT unSEEN,” encourages the examination and discussion of art by women and hopes to share with the public the myriad of provocative, inquisitive, and engaging works by women artists.
In 2012, forty years after the founding of feminist institutions such as Ms. Magazine, Title IX, A.I.R. Gallery, Ceres Gallery and SOHO20, many of the rights won by the second-wave generation of feminists seemed to be slipping away. In response to the incredible increasing tension against providing women with basic healthcare needs and the ensuing media firestorm, SOHO20 served as a venue for outrage. The exhibition was called “Backlash” and it was open to all artists who felt an injustice in the way women in our world are treated. The response to this “unjuried” exhibition was overwhelming; Backlash included the work of men and women, across generations, working in a variety of media to express fear, anger, despair, but also hope, fortitude, and solidarity. The event also featured performances by Go! Push Pops, Words Of Choice, The Baltimore Experimental Dance Collective & Kay Turner's song "Breast Exam" with guitarist extraordinaire Viva DeConcini. To provide an additional forum for conversation surrounding these issues, as well as a means of direct action, SOHO20 also collaborated with Government Free VJJ in hosting “The Snatchel Project,” an afternoon of feminist crafting making vaginas and uteruses to be send to male representatives in congress.
In 2013, SOHO20 presented “Women Redrawing the World Stage.” This exhibition was inspired by an extraordinary collection of events called the “Fertile Crescent Project,” which originated at the Institute of Women and Art at Rutgers University featuring artists Samira Abbassy, Zeina Barakeh, Milcah Bassel, Nezaket Ekici, Dahlia Elsayed, Chitra Ganesh, Mona Hatoum, Farah Ossouli, and Armita Raafat. Accompanying the exhibition, SOHO20 artist Aphrodite Navab moderated a panel discussion “The Iranian Diaspora: Women Redrawing the World Stage” with guest speakers Samira Abbassy, Farah Ossouli, and Armita Raafat. Also, The Feminist Art Project and the College Art Association in conjunction with SOHO20 presented “Place and Performance Art: Women Relocating the World,” chaired and moderated by Dr. Kathleen Wentrack with artists Aphrodite Navab, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, and Maria Hupfield.
Throughout the years, the gallery has increased emerging artist memberships; continued quality member exhibits, implemented fellowship memberships, featured numerous shows that address crucial social and political issues, organized group shows featuring women from diverse cultural backgrounds, and hosted panel discussions about significant art topics. In our forty year history more than 250 women artists have had their first New York City solo show at SOHO20 Gallery and more than 1,000 emerging artists have had the opportunity to exhibit in group shows. SOHO20 Gallery has provided not only an opportunity for exhibition, but also informal mentor opportunities for emerging artists to learn from more established artists. SOHO20 is now one of the oldest organizations in the U.S. created to address the under-representation in museums and galleries of work by women. SOHO20 Gallery members have received numerous distinctions, grants and fellowships, and are represented in major museums as well as public and private collections in the US and abroad.
In 2011, the National Museum of Women in the Arts reported that although 51% of visual artists today are women only 5% of the art currently on display in U.S. museums is made by women. SOHO20 is on the forefront of the contemporary art world, and works to continually redefine the meaning of feminism in art. Our goal is to defend feminism by continuing to challenge the unfair exclusion of women without accepting simplistic stereotypes or ideological policies. Our mission remains to provide exhibition opportunities for women artists, present educational programs and promote knowledge of women’s artistic contributions to the general public.
- "Organization History". Soho20 Chelsea. Retrieved 12 January 2014.