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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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Leslie would become lifelong friends with many of these artists, like painter Marion Pinto, whose full-sized nude portrait of Leslie and Lohman still hangs over Leslie’s couch. Many were gay, but kept that side of their art hidden. “Most people didn't want that stuff because what would you do with it?” Leslie says. “You couldn't show it, you couldn't hang it, and it had no market value because there was no market for it.” At least, there was no market for it yet – but Leslie, and the sexual and political revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s, would soon change that.

As he tells it, three things happened in the summer of 1969: Woodstock, the Stonewall Rebellion, and his first annual Exhibition of Homoerotic Art, which he held in his Soho studio.

“A la Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland,” Leslie laughs while remembering, “Fritz and I said ‘Hey, let's put on a show!’”

Their hope was to sell explicitly gay work (as opposed to work by gay artists trying to mask their sexuality or create art for a straight audience), in order to prove it “wasn’t pointless to make.” Leslie and Lohman invited a few dozen friends; Over the course of the weekend, more than 200 people showed up. After the third such Exhibition in 1972, they opened their first official gay art venture, The Leslie Lohman Gallery on Broome Street.

But before Soho blossomed into the white-hot center of New York City’s art world (by 1975, an astonishing 83 galleries had popped up), Leslie and Lohman presciently purchased a number of unwanted buildings. The income from these properties allowed them to collect work from around the world, while simultaneously maintaining their gallery space.

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