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What it Took to Create the World’s First Gay Art Museum

Charles Leslie’s passionate half-century of homoerotic art collecting offers a mirror for the history of gay history itself

The "Queer Threads" exhibition, which ran in early 2014, examined the diversity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer experiences. (Stanley Stellar / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art )
smithsonian.com

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“We made the discovery early on that we'd both been discreet collectors of gay imagery,” Leslie says. Lohman was older, and an established designer to the rich and powerful, including Barbara Walters and the Onassis family.. His resources, combined with Leslie’s connections to the theater and art worlds, enabled them to amass a trove of gay art.

But what, exactly, makes art gay?

“Charles [Leslie] has always been fundamentally focused on the homoerotic, which he understands as the most dissident form of art making,” says Katz, “because by definition it has been historically excluded.” However, even Leslie understood that a work could trigger that certain frisson without necessarily being erotic. Does that leave “gay art” in the same nebulous I-know-it-when-I-see-it category as pornography or obscenity?

“Art doesn't have a sexual orientation. Art is art,” says Hunter O’Hanian, who has served as president of the museum since 2012. Eloquent, graying, and tattooed, O’Hanian is the perfect poster boy for an outlaw collection that’s infiltrated the mainstream. In his eyes, what makes a piece of art “gay” is the perspective and intention of the artist. We paint ourselves into our work, including our desires, and it is this perspective that queers the art. Katz, who also co-curated the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s controversial exhibition “Hide/Seek” in 2010, goes a step further, believing that “queer art can be made by straight people, because queerness is a social-historical identity category,” not a fixed behavior (which implies that queerness can and will look different in different times and cultures). Nevertheless, in the time during which Leslie was first collecting, the vast majority of gay work was made by gay artists.

Leslie’s patronage of that work extended far beyond simply collecting it. He quickly enmeshed himself in the fight to turn Soho into a live-work artists district, in order to protect the growing community of artists he’d discovered working there. Stephen Petrus (author of From Gritty to Chic: The Transformation of New York City’s Soho, 1962-1976) says that Leslie was “an unofficial leader” of the Soho Artists Alliance, which “was crucial to the zoning changes that legalized artist residency in Soho.”

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