PPOW, New York’s Last Downtown Gallery

“We have had many, many sleepless nights. Very many,” says Olsoff. “Friends and artists died of AIDS. There was the dot-com crisis. There was the World Trade Center, when we were right there on Broome Street. I mean, it was really horrible.” And while they like to joke that they are simply too proud to quit, she and Pilkington have made it through, in large part, because of each other and the strength of their working relationship. “I had shown with some partners before, and it was always bad,” says Betty Tompkins. “They had never had ‘the talk.’ It’s like getting married: “What are you responsible for? What am I responsible for?” But I was really impressed with how Wendy and Penny divvy up the duties.” Olsoff, who is more gregarious, tends to handle outward-facing tasks and now does the majority of the gallery’s studio visits, while Pilkington, who is unflappable and as a child would take apart and reassemble a broken vacuum cleaner for fun, solves problems and creates stability. In conversation, they often finish each other’s sentences, and their skill sets are complementary in even the smallest of ways: When we meet for our first interview at a cafe in March, it is Pilkington who reaches for the check at the end of the afternoon, while Olsoff — who says, with a laugh, that she can’t do basic math — continues to chat animatedly. “They’re very chalk and cheese,” says Pawson. Or, as Coe sees it, “one is the live wire and one is the grounding, so if you get the wires mixed up, the building could burn down.”

In 2002, PPOW made another reluctant move, this time to Chelsea, where, in 2009, the gallery was, in fact, damaged by a fire. It began at night in the loft above, which was being renovated, and eventually burned through the gallery’s ceiling. Pilkington and Olsoff had, by that point, spent two decades in an uneasy game of cat and mouse with gentrification — arriving in a neighborhood that was just starting to experience it, only to be forced into the next one by its effects — and this particular catastrophe seemed like the culmination: The art world’s incursion into Chelsea had helped transform the former industrial zone into a desirable area for condos, and one of them almost razed the gallery. “Grab the Schneemanns, grab the Wongs, just grab them,” Olsoff remembers yelling. They were also able to salvage some of the works by the Dutch artist Teun Hocks, which they had been installing at the time, and somewhat miraculously, they still managed to open the show on time, in an alternate venue. But it was another chapter of another difficult decade. “It was tunnel vision after that,” says Pilkington. “Wendy concentrated on the shows and the program, and I concentrated on the insurance claim. I don’t even know what else happened during that time. All I know is, I got the money.” Still, that same year, they mounted an exhibition of Schneeman’s long-overlooked paintings that eventually led to her large traveling retrospective in 2017, and during their time in Chelsea they began working with several of the artists — including Motta and Tompkins, as well as the Brooklyn-based painter Robin F. Williams, the American feminist performance artist Martha Wilson and the young California-born painter Jay Lynn Gomez — who would define their program in the years to come. “A lot of curators came to that space,” says Olsoff. “It’s like you plant seeds whenever you do these shows. Nowadays, people are blinded: They think everything has to happen now. But I have a thing I like to say, which is, ‘Yeah, this show didn’t sell — which means it’s a really good show.’”

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