Photo by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta, Jenn Dierdorf of SOHO20 Gallery
INTERVIEW WITH JENN DIERDORF of SOHO20 GALLERY
This Spring REVOLT editor Katie Cercone interviewed Jenn Dierdorf, the 34-year-old Director of Soho20, a Chelsea-based artist-run gallery that supports women in the arts.
KC: Jenn, can you talk a bit about the History of Soho20 and the general state of the gallery before you became director in 2008?
JD: Soho20 was founded in 1973 by twenty women in the Soho arts district. There was a big d.i.y. scene during that time, artists - especially women artists - wanting to take things into their own hands in terms of exhibiting and setting up parameters for their work. The neighborhood of Soho was perfect because it was a focal point in the art world, essentially the gallery has always been where the action is, where the art community is thriving. SOHO20 moved to Chelsea in the early 2000's. We represent more than forty artists and have helped more than 200 women have their first New York City solo exhibition.
KC: How much does membership cost?
JD: There are different levels of membership one being national affiliate for $1000/year, which affords one group show per year and representation by the gallery. Regular membership gives artists a solo exhibition and a group exhibition and ranges from $130-290/month. Many people take issue with paying for exhibition space, however our goal here is to provide a comprehensive learning experience that empowers artists to have the professional abilities to execute their exhibition as well as navigate the art world.
KC: What are some of the changes you've made since you've been Director?
JD: Well, I've been at the gallery going on five years. When I first came to the gallery I was concerned about the organization being viewed as a vanity gallery.
We had no programming or outreach to support our mission and I wanted to change that. I felt that when we started working towards supporting our own goals other aspects would fall into place, such as broadening our audience and recognition from the larger art community. Now we have an annual performance art series, Savoir-Faire, now in its fourth year. The series features emerging women performance artists and works with them to create new work. We also have a Studio Residency program which grants 3-months of free studio space to men and women artists living in the NYC area. That program is also being developed and for 2013 will include studio visits from local critics and writers for recipients. In addition to programs that I create at the gallery members are also encouraged to use the gallery for their own interests. One of our members Diane Churchill started a panel series on International Women's Issues, which includes issues like sex trafficking, child soldiers and violence against women. Things that are happening in the U.S. and abroad. We invite guest speakers and in some cases pair an expert in one field with an artist exploring similar ideas. The series continues but the topics change a bit each season. Last year we were doing more stuff about 1970's Feminism and currently we're working with contemporary artists in New York City. Each event contains art and feminism in various degrees, whether it's political, cultural, mythological, and so on.
KC: Can you talk a bit about the Residency Program?
JD: Our residency program is not open to members because they jury it. It's open to men and women, typically emerging artists that are living in or around New York City. The program awards 1 artist three months of free studio space and includes representation on our website, a printed postcard featuring the artist and multiple open studio events. This program has been going on since 2009 and we've had 7 residents so far. It's kind of a green program. That's actually what has been really fun about my job here - Soho20 has the longevity and the lineage of being a substantial 40-year-old organization. There's a lot of history behind it and incredible stories about Louise Bourgeois coming into the gallery when it was on Broadway. It's also still very green and there's a lot of leeway to create new programs and try out new ideas, a lot of experimentation goes on here.
KC: How do you pay the rent?
JD: Most of our expenses are paid for by the members' monthly dues. We are a 501 (c) 3 organization and are eligible for other types of funding. My next big goal is to hire a grant writer so we can start getting some of these programs funded. We also seek donations from public and private donors. Originally members' dues covered all the operational costs and I think that's one of the reasons why during the most recent recession the gallery wasn't affected that much. We don't rely on sales, although we do sell things.
KC: Does the gallery take a commission?
JD: The artist gets 80% and the Director gets 20%, but that doesn't go to the operational costs of the gallery. In 2009 the gallery relocated from 25th street to 27th street and expanded our offices and exhibition space. This was during the height of the recession, not many arts organizations were doing that. That move corresponded to the development of our programs. We had more space which allowed us to offer more to the artists we serve. That expansion does of course have expenses, and those programs need money. We are seeking funding for them and working daily to keep them going. The artists we work with and the feedback we're getting is that they are valuable and helpful and create new opportunities.
KC: I know you are also an artist, what was that transition like for you, becoming a gallery director at such a young age… can you demystify your role a bit?
JD: My background is in studio work and I never thought that I would be this involved in arts administration. When I moved to New York after graduating in 2008 I was connected to Soho20 through a professor of mine who was a member. I interviewed with no less than 8 women to get the position. The thing I was drawn to and what I think I thrive at most is the program development because it has a creative element and gets me working with artists. I like to talk to artists about their ideas and get into concepts and practices. If anything I think that my experience as an artist has really helped support the administrative work that I do because I know everything about the technical side of things. It gives me insight into what our artists are doing and allows me to be more helpful to them.
Photo by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta, Jenn Dierdorf of SOHO20 Gallery
KC: What is the demographic as well as the spirit of Soho20's current membership? Being that the gallery started as a renegade project during a very sort of utopian time for women in the arts, how far have we come so to speak?
JD: The demographic is pretty diverse! We work with artists from 25 to 75 years old. We represent artists from all of the world of different races, backgrounds, interests and art practices. In terms of the past thirty years I really have to pick up bits and pieces from members who have been here a long time or rely on my own romantic notions about what that must have been like. There must have been a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm going into starting a business like that. Recently, we've finally started appealing to a younger audience which was a goal of mine because I always imagined that the gallery would act as a catalyst for an artist, ideally they would one day leave the gallery and go on to have an amazing art career.
KC: You mean at a commercial gallery?
JD: Whatever their ambitions and goals may be. There are artists we represent and all they want in the world is to be picked up by a commercial gallery and others who want support for public projects, or to be in museums. It's interesting because we can accommodate a range of pursuits and people can be part of the gallery for all sorts of different reasons. The common thread being that they are all interested in sharing their work with an audience.
KC: Was consensus based decision-making part of the original mission statement?
JD: I've sort of made up my own rules because really when I came here the current gallery director was acting more as a kind of gallery sitter. Originally the members sat for the gallery. I feel like there's pros and cons to that because in a sense they have more of an investment in the gallery when they have to be here and talk to visitors and on the other it's more professional and more consistent to have a director or someone that's managing and overseeing a little bit of everything. At first I did ask for more permission. I just came up with wild ideas like… let's try this! I think people didn't know what to think and were maybe excited with my enthusiasm so they just let me try stuff. There weren't rules to accommodate what I was doing because no one had done it before. I wasn't turning the art world on its head or anything, I just saw room for improvement and tried to get it going.
KC: I enjoyed the Feminist mash-up you did with Kat Griefen the former director of A.I.R., a gallery that has a similar model to Soho20; can you talk about your work together?
JD: Soho20 and A.I.R. have almost the exact same model and Kat Griefen was a huge help when I came here just in terms of showing me the ropes and offering support. She recently invited me to be a coordinator for The Feminist Art Project (TFAP) along with art historian Kathleen Wentrack. The three of us are the current New York chapter coordinators of TFAP. The "mash-ups" are nice because it puts all the right people in a room together and gets them talking. Our last meeting included gallery owner Jessica Porter and Kickstarter art director Stephanie Pereira. Artists and art professionals are invited to share their projects and hopefully find support to keep things going. It's exciting!
KC: So if membership is only open to women, is the residency open to men?
JD: It is. Also, we hold an annual juried show, which is also open to men and women. I guess the idea behind opening up some programs is because the gallery's purpose is neither to be exclusive to men nor to isolate women. Having men participate with the gallery is important and allows us to foster relationships with likeminded people. The residency being open to men and women was an idea that everyone agreed with for the reason that we want to be accessible and have men be part of the gallery. Unfortunately we have not yet
had any men participate, although several have been finalists. The very first time that we held interviews for the residency we had a male finalist whose work was incredibly strong. And yet it's not always about whose work is the best or the strongest or who has the most sparkling exhibition record. It has to do with who can we help the most, who would benefit the most. It's always a group decision. Another time we did select a male resident but he was unable to do it having been offered another residency. Basically our record doesn't show that we've ever had a male resident but we are trying. The other thing is 90% of these decisions are made from looking at someone's work. Same with gallery membership, the work is the first thing that decisions are based on, and all other material is supplementary. Unless an artist is making work that is extremely autobiographical, not much is known about the artist at the time of the jurying.
KC: In terms of this notion of the collective… how does that actually play out at Soho20 in terms of interactions between members? Do they come to one another's shows? Do you all meet regularly?
JD: Yes! Of course it varies, but especially the NYC members are incredible! As part of their contract they take on a "job" at the gallery, which ranges from committee work, fundraising, jurying to accounting and web design. Many of these artists work full time jobs and still find the time and energy to assist the gallery AND make art! They bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the gallery. We also have monthly meetings where members discuss operational issues and also vote on new applicants for membership. And of course, each month we have opening receptions, artist talks, panel discussions, etc. and members do come out and support each other. There are different levels of interaction and some participate more than others. The important thing is that there is incredible potential here, I am working to build a gallery that encourages creative thinking and self empowerment in order to create change.
KC: Who writes the press release?
JD: The artist can write it if they want to or have someone else write it. I write a lot of them. It's sort of open but all of that stuff is filtered through me for consistency. I typically format the press releases, assist with design and edit press materials. Making sure everything holds together and looks good is my job.
KC: Do you ever show artists that are not Soho20 members?
JD: Yes. If the schedule permits we sometimes rent space to women artists, though their work must be approved by our executive board. We do have our annual juried show which is open to all men and women artists and is juried by a well-known curator in NYC. We have worked with Kate Gilmore, Phong Bui, Dean Daderko and Chakia Booker to name a few. There are people who participated in a juried show three years ago that will stop in just to say hi or chat. We've had people fly from Europe or across the U.S. to see their work in the juried show. It's nice to see how important an exhibition opportunity can be to someone.
We try to keep our application fees low, usually $35, and offer perks to make it worth it for the artists that are selected. We don't take for granted that these applications are sometimes a difficult expense for artists. Being a non-profit organization we are always balancing our search for funding with supporting our mission statement. In the 90s and earlier the juried show was a huge income generator which helped to fund a significant portion of the gallery's expenses. Juried show applications could draw upwards of $30,000 back then, and now even commercial galleries offer open calls with application fees. Nowadays there is no shortage of places willing to take artist's money.
KC: I agree. I started to feel like it was a big scam preying on young artists who are very poor and very much dreamers. You know you'll have these commercial galleries that do these juried shows all the time.
JD: It's an interesting new development that I kind of saw happen. I blame it on the recession, how you'd start to see commercial galleries doing things that were usually reserved for non-profits. I'm just like - you can't do that that's for us to do we're the ones that need the money! It's an interesting development to see how badly they need the money too. I've seen open calls where three galleries might partner together and do something where you can pay to have them look at your work and they'll pick one artist for representation. People will go bananas for that kind of stuff. On occasion there will be more interesting things to occur because of lack of money. I enjoy seeing changes that develop out of necessity. The move of galleries out of Chelsea and into the Lower East Side for example is great. It spreads out the "center" of the art world a bit and mixes galleries with neighborhoods and commerce. And the spaces in the LES are much different than the cavernous warehouse galleries in Chelsea.
KC: How optimistic are you, do you think it's a good time to be a women artist?
JD: (Chuckle) Sure I think it is! If you're asking about the politics involved than I think yes, people are paying more attention to art and social change in areas of race, politics, gender etc. Perhaps the fact that SOHO20 still exists, still needs to exist, can be an eye opener to some about the under-representation of women in the art world. Like many issues, this too has this way of silently being embedded in our culture so that it may be unnoticed or worse, benign. Women have always advanced in affecting change through subversive means and art is very conducive to working that way. This may seem in opposition to my role as the director of a Feminist gallery but I feel like it's too disruptive to do things in outright protest. I very much support the Occupy movement and find great value in solidarity and the resources that the movement has created, though the action of change is subtle. It's about choices and support and community. But there are a lot of interesting things happening – the first performance art exhibition by Marina Abramovic at MoMA, critics and writers being more vocal about women artists, commercial art galleries that specifically support women artists – and there are many more examples of this kind of momentum.
KC: Hell yea.