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Today, the acceptance of photography in the art world may seem like a foregone conclusion, but prior to the 1980s very few galleries showed photography exclusively, and emerging photographers had limited options for showing their work. In the 1960s, photographers responded to this situation by forming workshops and cooperatives, most importantly the Visual Studies Workshop, founded in Rochester, New York, by Nathan Lyons in 1969, and the Apeiron Workshops, founded in Millerton, New York, by Peter Schlessinger in 1971. Then, in the 1970s, a number of innovative groups, including New York City’s Artists Space, P.S. 1, and Franklin Furnace, took advantage of funding from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to formally organize as nonprofit institutions. The history of these alternative art spaces, and particularly the history of such spaces for photography, is still being written. As part of this process, this exhibition brings to light for the first time the activity of the Midtown Y Photography Gallery, a pioneering nonprofit organization that offered photographers an opportunity to publicly exhibit their work.

In 1972, in a cleared-out corridor at the Emanu-El Midtown YM-YWHA on 14th Street, Larry Siegel, with the help of Robert Menschel and NYSCA, founded the Midtown Y Photography Gallery. In addition to Siegel, the gallery had two other directors during its 25 years of existence: Sy Rubin and Michael Spano. All three men were photographers who had held various positions at the Midtown Y. Larry Siegel also had previously run Image Gallery, which along with Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery was one of the few venues in New York City, apart from the Museum of Modern Art, that held photography exhibitions in the 1950s and early 1960s.

From 1972 until 1996, when the gallery closed, the Midtown Y Photography Gallery helped dozens of photographers make the scene that it had helped to create over that 25-year period. This exhibition offers a broader vision of the photography that was seen during this critical juncture in the history of the medium and the art world in general, as well as an intimate portrait of one New York gallery.
The exhibition is divided into three main sections: a retrospective survey of photographers who showed individual bodies of work during the two major phases of the gallery’s life, 1972–1982 and 1983–1996, respectively; a selection of photographs drawn from some of the gallery’s large group exhibitions; and a significant group of Sy Rubin’s photographs from 14th St., a project sponsored by the Midtown Y in 1981. In addition, on the four walls that anchor the corners of the hall, smaller sections entitled “Negotiations” provide information about how the gallery handled a medium in transition, as photography became an essential part of the contemporary art scene. Finally, a “screening room” showcases in more depth the work of many of the photographers who exhibited at the Midtown Y.

Items in Making the Scene are drawn from the Midtown Y Photography Gallery Archive, bequeathed to The New York Public Library in 1998, and housed in the Photography Collection of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, and in the Manuscripts and Archives Division. Unless otherwise specified, photographs are gelatin silver prints.

Stephen C. Pinson
The Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

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