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SOHO20 Gallery was founded in 1973 by a group of women artists intent on achieving professional excellence in an industry where there was a gross lack of opportunities for women to succeed. 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 exhibition opportunities that they could not find elsewhere. As a result of their involvement with the gallery, they were recognized more widely. The achievements of many SOHO20 artists have been reported in many notable publications.
SOHO20 was founded by two artists, Joan Glueckman and Mary Ann Gillies, who modeled SOHO20 after A.I.R. Gallery (est. 1972), the first all-women cooperative art gallery in New York City. While attending a meeting of Women Artists in Revolution (WAR) in late 1972, Glueckman and Gillies met Agnes Denes, who told them about A.I.R. Gallery and encouraged them to establish another all-women cooperative exhibition venue, citing "much need for women's galleries." Marilyn Raymond, a businesswoman and friend of Glueckman's, handled the business matters while Glueckman and Gillies looked for artists to join the gallery. A cooperative structure was chosen for financial reasons. The name of the gallery was derived from its location at 99 Spring Street in the Manhattan neighborhood of Soho (formatted entirely in uppercase as SOHO) and an anticipated 20 artist-members.
According to the original press release, "In keeping with the feminist ideal of women defining themselves, the criterion for membership is professional excellence without restriction of style, medium, or theme." From the outset, the artist-members reflected a diversity of styles, subjects, and mediums. In addition to Glueckman and Gillies, the original members were Elena Borstein, Barbara Coleman, Maureen Connor, Eunice Golden, Marge Helenchild, Cynthia Mailman, Marion Ranyak, Rachel Rolon de Clet, Halina Rusak, Lucy Sallick, Morgan Sanders, Rosalind Shaffer, Sylvia Sleigh, Eileen Spikol, May Stevens, Suzanne Weisberg, and Sharon Wybrants. In order to give every member an opportunity to exhibit, the gallery initially held two concurrent solo shows at a time. The premiere exhibitions in October 1973 featured works by Sylvia Sleigh, who exhibited The Turkish Bath (1973) and several other paintings, and Maureen Connor, who showed a group of giant "breathing flowers" that alternately inflated and deflated. After the 1973–74 exhibition season, Sleigh, Helenchild, Stevens, and Weisberg left the gallery. Shirley Gorelick, Kate Resek, and Susan Hoeltzel became members in 1974; Vernita Nemec, C. R. Peck, Diane Churchill, and Noreen Bumby joined SOHO20 in 1975, following the departures of several other artists.
In 1975, SOHO20 began to hold annual group exhibitions in addition to solo shows by member-artists. Showing Off opened the 1975–76 exhibition season. The art critic John Perreault responded positively to Showing Off, saying that most group shows "are the bane of reviewers" but this was "a fine show far above the level of most such things." In the 1975–76 season, the artists of SOHO20 also arranged their first exchange exhibition with HERA (est. 1974), an all-women cooperative gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island. The galleries exchanged group shows in an effort to expose viewers to the breadth of women's work. Invitational exhibitions, which tended to reflect a diversity similar to that of the gallery's member-artists, were likewise introduced in 1975 as a "community service" that gave viewers "a broad new look at new talent."
In 1982, SOHO20 moved to a new space at 469 Broome Street, another location in Soho. The gallery obtained legal, non-profit 501(c)3 status in 1989, and received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts for two well visited exhibition series, both of which ran four years. By the late 1980s, SOHO20 had established a reputation for featuring exhibitions that exposed relevant social and political issues. In 1985, for example, Private Gone Public was acknowledged by The New York Times. South African Mail Art: View from the Inside (1989), consisting of more than 400 works by 200 artists from South Africa was curated by Janet Goldner with funding from the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid. In 1990, an exhibition curated by Faith Ringgold was made as a tribute to the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964, and featured works by six African-American women artists.
By the 1990s, international relations were forged; members showed in Germany with the support of the Goethe House in 1990, and member Eleonora Tammes and her husband Orson van de Plassche secured funds from several foundations to enable SOHO20 members to exhibit in Amsterdam in 1998. In 1990, SOHO20 presented the exhibition Blacklisted/Whitewashed and Red Handed, which featured works by SOHO20 artists and artist–interns from Washington Irving High School relating to issues of censorship, funding restrictions, and 1st Amendment rights after funding for the National Endowment for the Arts had been cut. Later in 1990, the Organization of Pan Asian American Women and SOHO20 Gallery presented an art auction of works by Asian artists to benefit the New York Asian Women’s Center, which addresses the problem of mistreated women in Asian-American communities. In 1994, SOHO20 hosted an invitational exhibition of work that addressed the fragile state of world ecology, Effect or Infect: Art and Ecology. Beginning in 1994, SOHO20 released an annual call for artists for the Annual International Exhibit of Women’s Art, which is juried by many artists and curators and has given more than 300 artists the opportunity to show at the Gallery; an annual "Best in Show" is awarded a solo exhibition. Since 1994, SOHO20 funded 15 fellowships, which provide women artists deemed worthy with full member benefits for 2 years without the financial obligation usually associated with membership; it was renamed the “Ellen Hoffman Fellowship Fund” in Ms. Hoffman’s memory.
In 1996, SOHO20 moved to a third location at 545 Broadway, and then relocated for the fourth time to 511 West 25th Street in Chelsea in 2001. SOHO20 also began to invite literary artists for readings, and hosted events led by the organization Artists Talk on Art between 2003–10. In an effort to give back and use art to promote awareness and understanding of global issues, members have often used their exhibition opportunities to help others, with three exhibits in 2005 garnering donations. In 2007, the gallery organized an all-media juried exhibition, Adam's Rib, Eve's Air in Her Hair, which explored the many manifestations of Eve, including Lilith, to whom the second part of the exhibition title refers. SOHO20 hosted its first all-woman video show in 2008, followed by various film screenings. In late 2009, the gallery relocated to its fifth location on West 27th Street.
Multiple projects arose around this time. A 2010 exhibition of talks and dialogues called INTERNATIONAL FOCUS-Women in Crisis dealt with human rights issues such as sex trafficking, child soldiers, and genital mutilation; it later continued with the name CONVERSATIONS, with experts speaking on a variety of topics including “Voices of Muslim Women”. In 2010, the series continued with “What’s Old is New Again: The legacy of the feminist art movement of the 70s”, 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. Another project, “Savoir-Faire”, began in 2009 as a platform for women performance artists to realize projects that had previously been never seen. 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. Other outreach programs include “SIGHT unSEEN,” an ongoing series of gallery tours through the Chelsea arts district, led by guest curators, writers, and artists.
In 2012, in response to increasing tension against providing women with basic healthcare needs, SOHO20 made an exhibition called Backlash, which featured both men and women artists and was open to all artists who felt that there was injustice against women. SOHO20 also collaborated with Government Free VJJ in hosting “The Snatchel Project,” an afternoon of feminist crafting making vaginas and uteruses to be sent to male representatives in Congress. In 2013, SOHO20 presented “Women Redrawing the World Stage”, an exhibition from the Institute of Women and Art at Rutgers University, and a panel discussion called "The Iranian Diaspora: Women Redrawing the World Stage". Also, The Feminist Art Project and the College Art Association in conjunction with SOHO20, presented "Place and Performance Art: Women Relocating the World" on the same topic.
- "SOHO20 Gallery: Organization History". SOHO20 Gallery. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
- Ellen Lubell, "SoHo 20," Womanart 1, no. 1 (Summer 1977): 16.
- Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds., The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).
- Jean Bergantini Grillo, "Soho 20: A Diverse Women's Gallery," The Feminist Art Journal 5, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 36–37.
- Corinne Robins, "'Artists In Residence:' The First Five Years," Womanart 2, no. 2 (Winter 1977–78): 4–7, 42.
- Julie Ault, ed., Alternative New York, 1965–1985 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 36.
- Rosemary Mayer, "Maureen Connor/Sylvia Sleigh," Arts Magazine 48, no. 3 (December 1973): 61–62.
- Jamaica Kincaid, "Erotica!" Ms. (January 1975): 30–33.
- John Perreault, "Superwoman!" Soho Weekly News, September 25, 1975.
- Barbara Cavaliere, "HERA at SoHo 20," Womanart 1, no. 1 (Summer 1976): 29.
- Jill Dunbar, "Invitational," Reviews, Womanart 2, no. 3 (Spring 1978): 34–35.
- Grace Glueck, "Art: At the Whitney, Michael Heizer Work," The New York Times, June 28, 1985.
- "African Activist Archive". africanactivist.msu.edu. Retrieved 2017-02-20.
- Marilyn Martin, "Restoring Our Otherness: Reflections on the Meaning of Eurocentrism and its Effects on South African Culture," South African Journal of Art History 11 (1993): 93–100.
- "Adam's Rib, Eve's Air in Her Hair". The Feminist Art Project. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
- "WE ARE MOVING!". SOHO20 Gallery. Retrieved September 3, 2015.