Almost a century ago, Virginia Woolf meditated on the material conditions necessary for female writers’ independence: money and a room of one’s own. While few people would argue that financial stability is still a prerequisite for succeeding as a female in the world, the importance of physical space seems to be downplayed in this digital age.
The recently initiated collective platform Assembly Room, founded by Yulia Topchiy, Natasha Becker, and Paola Gallio, aims provide a space for female curators to voice their ideas and actualize curatorial projects. While women in the art world are more visible today than a decade ago, many remain unacknowledged, or are cast as male curators’ sidekicks. Recently, the New York Times review of Sarah Lucas’s New Museum retrospective, Au Naturel, omitted co-curator Margot Norton, only crediting Massimiliano Giono.
The idea for Assembly Room arose five years ago, after Topchiy and Becker met at the Spring/Break Art Fair. The two quickly became friends, often discussing their experiences in a male-dominated art world. Before long, they started inviting other female curators to join their conversations, and — in their own words — it turned into “a sort of book club.”
Inspired by these meetings, Topchiy and Becker couldn’t resist the desire to open up their own space. This past summer, Topchiy was alerted that the SHRINE Gallery on 191 Henry Street in Chinatown was freeing up. She and Becker were both willing to quit their jobs and take the leap. However, someone had beat them to it: an Italian curator named Paola Gallio, who envisioned a space that provides opportunities for others. Made aware of the similarity between their visions by the SHRINE Gallery director Scott Ogden, Gallio and Topchiy met for drinks to determine whether the three curators could join forces in this adventure. Seconds after exiting the bar, Topchiy texted Becker: “I like her, let’s do it.”
Together, the three came up with the name Assembly Room. It signifies a space that is not only collective, but also educational and political — a space where work is done. This collective aspect clearly builds on earlier feminist art initiatives such as the 1972 Womanhouse, but Assembly Room differentiates itself by focusing on carving out space for female curators rather than female artists (which is the wonderful mission of AIR Gallery). Above all else, the founders of Assembly Room are invested in representing the female curatorial vision — and this vision may include artists from anywhere on the gender spectrum. Indeed, no other initiative like this exists in NYC (to my knowledge), and this may put some pressure on Assembly Room as they are paving the road for others to follow.
To kick off their programming, each curator decided to organize one show, and they have just announced an open call for applications to facilitate opportunities for other female curators.
The first show, SOFT POWER (Sept. 14 – Oct. 14), was curated by Gallio and presented a new body of sculptures by Fawn Krieger, Experiments in Resistance. Krieger began the series in a state of rage after Donald Trump’s inauguration, exploring art-making as an act of resistance. A talk by Krieger drew a large audience of women from different backgrounds that extended far beyond the art world. Gallio recalls how the women felt empowered by their collective discussion of the current political situation. Assembly Room became a space to carry on the conversation — which in itself is an act of resistance.
The second show, Multiplicities Vol. 1 Continues Unknowing, curated by Natasha Becker, opened on October 19. “Multiplicities” refers to the philosophical concept of a space in which difference is retained. Indeed, Becker, who views her curatorial practice as a program rather than a series of individual shows, strives to bring together diverse people and voices. Multiplicities marks the New York debut of Brett Seiler, a queer Zimbabwean man living in South Africa; Helina Metaferia, an female, Ethiopian-American performance artist; and Blake Daniels, a queer American man who studied in South Africa. Placed in dialogue, these artists’ works explore suppressed desires and queer histories, and aim to insert black bodies into the canon.
Yulia Topchiy’s show opens late November, and will consider Assembly Room’s role in Chinatown. Working closely with the surrounding Asian-American community, Topchiy has invited artists to make site-specific work around the idea of “neighborhood.” The show will feature Emily Wang, Dachal Choi, Maya Yu Zhang, and Cici Wu in the gallery’s main space. In collaboration with Banyi Huang, Topchiy is also creating a program for the basement that will include video and performance work. Dedicated to developing a close relationship with the entire community, the programming will involve seniors and teenagers in the conversation by hosting a series of film screenings and talks.
When I sat down with these three inspiring women, we spoke about their goals for Assembly Room. The curators emphasized that they don’t encounter the same conflicts of interest as galleries do, as they don’t represent artists. “We function more like matchmakers,” Topchiy notes. None of the three are American, and they find themselves startled by the amount of competition and judgment that often takes place between women in this country. Their ultimate mission is to provide a space of support and advice for female curators that is devoid of any rivalry.
“I wish the world didn’t need these [all-female] spaces,” Gallio states, “but it does.” Aiming to build a strong community, Assembly Room opens up the category “woman” to all demographics, tapping into a wide range of different networks of people. As exemplified by the Christine Blasey Ford case, telling her story is often the only form of action a woman is allowed to take, and even this tends to be dismissed. When voicing our experiences is not enough, occupying physical space can be the most powerful act of resistance.
Multiplicities Vol. 1 Continuous Unknowing: Blake Daniels, Helena Metaferia, Brett Seiler continues at Assembly Room (191 Henry Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through November 18. It is curated by Natasha Becker.