Filling A Blank Canvas

Wendy Olsoff ’78 co-founded and is the co-owner of the Chelsea art gallery PPOW in
Manhattan. The gallery has a history of featuring artists who have political and social
meaning in their work, from HIV/AIDS advocacy to feminist art. Each summer, Olsoff
gives HWS students an inside look at life in the gallery through her internship program.

by Jonathan Everitt

The Manhattan art world has changed considerably in the past 30 years and Wendy Olsoff ’78 has adapted at every turn. So has PPOW—a Chelsea art gallery she co-founded and owns with Penny Pilkington.

The Merrick, Long Island, native had a love of art before she ever came to Hobart and William Smith. But it was here that she pursued art and art history, thanks to the heavy influence of one art history professor in particular.

“I majored in English and minored in art history,” Olsoff says. “The art history classes were transformative and Professor of Art Elena Ciletti inspired me. I’ve had a lot of inspirational women in my life, and I think the first one was Elena.”

After graduating in 1978, Olsoff first went into teaching, but soon discovered it wasn’t her true calling.

“I didn’t really know that you could have a career in art,” she says. “So I got a certificate in teaching. I got to New York and didn’t want to teach. I ended up working at a department store.”

A friend encouraged her to go to work for a gallery.

“About a year and a half out of college, I got a job at a gallery,” Olsoff says. “I met my current business partner there.”

In 1983, the two opened PPOW—a mixture of their first and last initials—and never looked back. Although they have relocated more than once since first opening up shop in 1983 during the first wave of New York’s East Village art scene.

“We had to leave the East Village because the art world left the East Village,” Olsoff says. “We got bigger, cheaper space in SoHo. We stayed in SoHo, then it became so overrun with tourists and retailers and the rents got so high, we moved to Chelsea.”

Today, PPOW offers a summer internship program which HWS students frequently participate.

“My staff knows that the HWS applicants need to be seriously considered,” Olsoff says, “But we hire interns from other schools, too. I want to be able to nurture them, but they have to qualify just like everyone else.”

Interns at PPOW work hard and get direct experience with the work of running a gallery. Sometimes, the grunt work.

“They’re assisting other staff who have more work than they can handle,” Olsoff says. “It might be helping to set up a booth at an art show, scanning articles and photography, doing inventory, wrapping and carrying paintings out to clients. All the things a beginning person would do at a gallery. They see how an art gallery really functions.”

Though Olsoff doesn’t work closely with the interns herself, before the summer is finished, she takes each one out to lunch or dinner, just to have some time to talk and to dig a little deeper.

“My interns aren’t coming to a gallery that just puts stuff up on the wall to sell to rich people,” Olsoff says. “We’re here to create a more inspiring environment. In my department store job, I was selling shirts and shoes and dresses. Even though I’m selling things now, they have to have meaning.”

Through the years, she’s found meaning in representing artists whose work is inspired by the issues of our times.

“The gallery has had a history of showing artists who have political and social meaning in their work. Estates of artists who have died of AIDS, like David Wojnarowicz and Martin Wong. We also show some of the most famous artists who have done work in feminism.”

Olsoff herself serves on the council of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

As the art world evolves, becomes more connected and global, and more competitive, there are new opportunities for artists and curators, she says. And PPOW is proof that success doesn’t have to come at the expense of taking a stand on certain causes.

“You can have a successful career as an artist and have a strong political voice and identity.”

A successful gallery, too. Which may be why, in 2012, she and Penny Pilkington received a Visual AIDS Vanguard Award for their work in the arts and their commitment to HIV/AIDS advocacy and support of artists living with HIV.

Making sure her interns understand life’s harsh realities is important to Olsoff.

“The difficulty for students these days is what the art world is really about” she says. “It looks fun and exciting, but it’s long hours and low pay and very competitive. You have to have the right personality. It’s incredibly social and you have to be extremely savvy and also have a soul.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.