The New York Feminist Art Institute
by Katie Cercone

Place of first publication
nparadoxa:  international feminist art journal: Incidental, volume 22 2008

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In the US prior to the 1970s women artists were rare amongst art faculty or as instructors in higher education; those who did succeed were often praised for having the capacity to “paint like a man.” As a completely female-run community, the NYFAI offered women an alternative to the competition-based paradigm of the New York art scene. In addition to placing women in positions of power as instructors, board members and students of the NYFAI, the new feminist art school scarcely resembled the typical educational facility where hierarchy and education was structured around master/pupil relationships. Moreover, the NYFAI kept to a feminist collaborative model of decision-making in all of its social, educational and financial affairs. Whether one sat in during Arlene Raven’s Feminist Art History, Darla Bjork’s Separation Loss, and Anxiety, Sandra Langer’s Gyn/Aesthetics or Judy Chicago’s Birth Project, traditional teacher-student hierarchies seldom applied to the institute’s collaborative learning models. In fact, faculty and board members were often interchangeable with students. Joan Arbeiter sums up this attitude when she recalls, “We scrubbed floors together at the same time we broke bread together at the same time we paid bills together.”

The NYFAI was about cooperation, and about striking a balance between introspection and healthy, supportive networking. Collaboration was a chief leitmotif in much of the creative work of the NYFAI’s students and faculty. Particularly through performance, women learned to use models of collaborative expression. Juxtaposed to the isolation of traditionally female and domestic roles in 1950s and 1960s America, this non-hierarchical educational model engendered a new synthesis between a female community and the woman artist as individual, begetting the unraveling of the myth of artistic creativity defined by the genius white male artist who worked alone.

The continued challenge of the NYFAI was to remain open. For the NYFAI as with many alternative not-for profit structures, it was the institute’s alterity, coupled with the backlash against feminist gender politics that emerged in the early 1990s and declared feminism the new f-word, that led to its financial difficulties and eventual closure.

The organization’s infrastructure and philosophy discouraged major endowments or grants because they were not in-sync with dominant art world norms. NYFAI alumna Melissa Meyer compares the NYFAI’s financial hardships those of the Heresies Collective, a small collective that produced a regular publication on feminist art and politics from 1976-1995. The Collective took the position that purchasing their office on Franklin St. in Soho (then $5000) was engaging in capitalism, but their refusal to do so left them vulnerable to skyrocketing New York City rents. When the Ford Foundation withdrew promised grant money in the 1980s, one of the things the company objected to was the fact that the NYFAI board members were also faculty and working members. The lack of a typical hierarchy between management and workforce challenged the Ford Foundation’s sense of an educational model based upon stratified power that constructed difference, separation, and privilege, those very elements of patriarchal culture that feminism attempted to dismantle. These new ways of operating pushed the NYFAI and its members to the fringes of capitalist patriarchal culture.

What the women of the NYFAI came to learn was that breaking away from oppressive cultural patterns can be a long, complicated process of unlearning. This process of (un)learning, and of (re)conceptualizing visual and cultural narratives rose to the surface in the work produced by the NYFAI students. Although the NYFAI focused on the lived experience of its members, its rhetoric of empowerment and the school’s mere existence buttressed the demand for alternative educational, political and social models everywhere. Compared to most art school campuses, the NYFAI opened its doors to students of a much wider range by offering both full and part time study as well as a seminar program for art educators, special community events and a Women’s Resource Center. Intermittently, the art institute organized project exhibitions in which professional women artists were teamed up with emerging women artists, an unusually inclusionary practice for America in the 1980's. The NYFAI frequently invited the most prominent, successful female artists of the period as guests of honor; these included among others Elaine


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