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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 )

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They had to close the gallery in 1983, but continued to promote gay art by playing yenta to an informal network of artists and collectors. But by 1987 (the year the AIDS activist group ACT UP was founded), they were desperate to respond to the crisis in some way. Their accountant told them that the gallery, as a for-profit enterprise, was a non-starter. So instead, they opened the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to showing and preserving LGBT art.

In the beginning, they often got calls from the frantic friends and partners of recently deceased artists, who needed someone to rescue work that was being trashed by indifferent landlords or hostile families.

“A significant amount of our history was being destroyed,” says O’Hanian, the museum’s president. He credits Leslie, and his volunteers and staff, with saving many important works and adding to them to the museum’s growing collection, which today has more than 24,000 pieces.  

For the next quarter-of-a-century, the foundation continued to develop shows aimed at the gay community. But over the course of the late ’90s and early ’00s, mainstream interest in this work began to grow, and they found themselves attracting larger and more diverse audiences. Art that had been literally unshowable just a few decades earlier was now (slowly, and not without controversy) being recognized as part of the modern canon. As the work has become more valued, so too has the institution. In a review of a recent show, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter praised the “dedicated labor of this invaluable museum” for bringing forward hidden parts of history.

That has included bringing forward the parts of history that the collection itself has downplayed, like work by women, transgendered artists, and people of color.  O’Hanian sees the mission of the museum to be the preservation and promotion of art by “those who transcend some sense of binary-based gender or sexuality or orientation.” By bringing in diverse curators to oversee exhibitions, he tries to work against the limited perspective that always comes with being a small institution with a small staff. Wolfe says she believes the collection has gotten better and more complicated over the years. “I'm hoping that as they get bigger they'll be able to sustain it,” she adds.


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