55 Mercer Artists, Inc., an artist-run alternative to commercial galleries, was founded as 55 Mercer Gallery - also known as 55 Mercer Street Gallery and 55 Mercer - in December 1969. The earliest of a second wave of co-operative galleries in New York City, it was one of the most successful and the longest lived.
Many of the founders and early members were active in the Art Workers' Coalition, a group formed to address artists' rights issues and promote the overhaul of the museum and gallery system to remove profit motives from art. Tom Parker, an artist friend acting on behalf of group members who aspired to open a co-operative gallery, rented the third floor of 55 Mercer Street. He reserved a room to use as a studio and sublet the remainder to the co-op. Two large galleries of nearly equal size were separated by a small, open office area, a layout that led to a tradition of tandem solo exhibitions or one large group show. The open, spare and worn space especially appealed to sculptors and attracted those who worked in large scale with recycled materials.
The inaugural exhibition in early 1970 was a group show of the ten founding members: Alice Adams, Martin Bressler, Don Cole, Gloria Greenburg, Stan Kaplan, Christy Park, Stephen Rosenthal, L. Shreve Stevenson, and Merrill Wagner; during the first year, each member also had a solo exhibition. With haphazard arrangements and no publicity or gallery guide listings, reviews were not forthcoming. Nevertheless, by the end of its first year the gallery had established a reputation as a space "of artists, by artists, and for artists" and over the years presented some of the best exhibitions in SoHo. Membership was fluid. No particular style or philosophy was ever dominant, and members found unity in their focus on quality, antipathy to commercial galleries and insistence on freedom for member and guest artists alike.
By the start of its second season, the gallery had the attention of critics and reviews were appearing regularly in art periodicals. When the co-operative gallery Ours closed at the end of 1970, Janet Fish, Diane Karol, Paul Tschinkel, and Frank Lincoln Viner were invited to join. With larger membership came the need for a definite exhibition schedule and greater organization. Over the next few years, meetings began to occur more frequently. By the mid 1970s the gallery began to receive funding from sources such as the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Officially incorporated as 55 Mercer Street Artists, Inc. in 1977, the organizations by-laws specified: "The corporation is a not-for-profit corporation whose purpose is to provide a facility for artists who seek to introduce their work to the public. The corporation maintains an exhibition space which it makes available for this purpose, both for its artists members, and for visiting artists. In addition, the corporation presents performances, discussions, workshops and other art-related events for the general public." A board of directors composed of artist members managed the affairs of the corporation assisted by a Membership Committee, Grants Committee, and Selection Committee that chose and scheduled exhibitions,
Trustees began managing the building after the owner of the 55 Mercer Street died, and 55 Mercer Artists, Inc. received an eviction notice in early 2007. Legal representation was obtained and a loophole discovered, but declining membership and the poor physical condition of the facilities eventually prompted a decision to relocate. Some members chose to join other galleries. A core group of about a dozen 55 Mercer artists found a suitable space in Long Island City; after reorganizing as an artist-initiated not-for-profit gallery, they reopened in 2008 as M55 Mercer Art.