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A 'Queer Enlightenment' at the World's First Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

The Creators Project visits the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art to talk about the relevance of 1970s queer culture today.
Diana Davies, Gay rights demonstration, Albany, 1971/2013, Digital color print. Gift of Alexis Heller, ©NYPL. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

The places, faces, and bodies of a queer enlightenment paper the pastel-colored walls of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. The show, aptly titled The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment, narrates the turbulent years between the Stonewall Riots in New York in June of 1969 and the first ominous inklings of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.

The Creators Project went behind-the-scenes of the show, from the sexually playful photography of Crawford Barton to the surreal bondage scenes of Jimmy DeSana, from the revolutionary work of Kay Tobin Lahusen to the venerable images of Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio, to investigate a history full of hope, sex, protest, and the tangible zest of being queer, proud, and political in the 1970s. Our guide throughout was Hunter O'Hanian, the museum's director and co-curator of the show along with the rest of the museum's staff. He led us through the exhibition, down into the museum's labyrinthine archives, and behind the green curtain to the museum's workspace, overcrowded with delicious new donations (hint: miniature erotic sculptures from a New Jersey lawyer, coffee table books of dirty illustrations) and Leslie-Lohman's modest but impressive staff.


"There are many people who wonder why a gay art museum has to exist," O'Hanian says. "For us it's pretty straightforward: you have a segment of the population which has been marginalized and so the idea of seeing themselves reflected on the walls is really very important." Of course, Leslie-Lohman isn't just a gay art museum, it calls itself the first museum dedicated to gay and lesbian art.

Rink Foto, Lovers in a 1951 Mercury, 1979/2009, Archival inkjet print, 16 x 20 in. Founders’ gift. Collection of Leslie- Lohman Museum.

The museum was first started in 1969 as an amateur venture by Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman. Leslie and Lohman, lovers and art-lovers, started their DIY gallery as a means to preserve and exhibit works from the queer community, i.e. their gay and lesbian cohorts. Now with over 24,000 objects in its archives, the initial collection primarily featured the partners' private stores of gay erotic art, which they exhibited out of their SoHo loft, but over time, they began to accrue any and all genres of art. In the beginning, pieces donated to their growing gallery often from friends and artists; as the AIDS epidemic progressed, however, the partners jumped to salvage precious works from the belongings of the gay deceased—or rather, from their families who were often more than willing to get rid of this "obscene" art.

Stanley Stellar, Tava Von Will (detail), 1979, Color print on paper, 20 x 16 in. Gift of the artist. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

The organization still remains a haven for gay art today, receiving donations with open arms (and ever-decreasing archival space) from across the country and across the world. In 2011, however, after living for 24 years as a nonprofit organization and corresponding gallery space on Prince Street in SoHo, Leslie-Lohman was awarded museum status, and last year, the foundation and the museum officially merged under the name of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. In recent years, Leslie-Lohman has also been approached frequently by a wide range of museums and galleries to loan out works from their formidable collection—a sign, O'Hanian hopes, of progressive movement in the greater world of art institutions.


Francesco Scavullo, Robert Mapplethorpe and Samuel Wagstaff Jr., 1974, Silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 in. Gift of David Aden Gallery. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment is a tribute to this history and to the forward momentum of the organization itself. The show features, in addition to the artists mentioned above, Paul Cadmus, Joan E. Biren, Marion Pinto, Amos Badertscher, Harvey Milk, Saul Bolasni, Francesco Scavullo, Diana Davies, Rink Foto, Tee Corinne, Neel Bate, Peter Hujar, and dozens more. "When we put the show together […] I really wanted to talk about today," says O'Hanian. Like the 1970s, the director points out, 2016 is both a time of fervid political discourse and sexual liberation and of social crises and revolutionary diction. The show's memorials of protests, public and private, are proof that art and activism in such times are intrinsically linked and that art crystallizes a picket line for its generation and generations to come.

Diana Davies, Demonstration at City Hall, 1973/2013, Digital print. Gift of Alexis Heller, ©NYPL. Collection of Leslie- Lohman Museum.

Says O'Hanian, "In a broad sense, this show is about race marginalization, or is about class marginalization, or is about gender marginalization. It is really just a metaphor, not just for the gay community but for any segment of the community that feels underrepresented, that they can use art and demonstration and public politics in order to have their voices heard."

Rink Foto, The first large group of lesbians in the San Francisco Gay Parade, invited by Harvey Milk, 1974/2016, Archival inkjet print, 13.4 x 18 in. Gift of the artist.

The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment runs until June 3 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Find more about the show on the museum's website.


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