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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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In 2010, Fritz Lohman passed away at the age of 87, endowing the museum with his substantial estate (including his stake in the properties he and Leslie purchased in Soho), giving the institution freedom to launch shows largely unfettered by the demands of donors or grant-making institutions. With this security, they hope to, by next year, receive accreditation from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York as a full-fledged museum. In 2011, they received a provisional charter, making them the first and only gay art museum in the world (the Schwules Museum in Berlin and the San Francisco GLBT History Museum preceded them, but both focus on history). Accreditation through the Alliance of American Museums may come further down the road, once the paperwork with the state is completed.

In just the three years that O’Hanian has been at the helm, museum attendance has nearly doubled, up to 25,000 visitors annually. In order to meet the demand, the museum is taking over the mattress store next door, which will provide an additional 3,000 square feet. of space, allowing them to put on as many as three exhibitions at a time. Construction will begin this fall, and they hope to have their first show in the new gallery some time in early 2016. “Ultimately, we will inhabit a dedicated building,” board president Katz predicts. But he expects the current expansion will provide adequate space for at least the next few years.

As for Leslie, he no longer leads the museum. Yet despite all the growth and change of the last half century, the spirit with which he founded the institution – a belief in the importance of LGBTQ art, on its own terms – still pervades the space.

When asked why he made this his life’s work, an answer comes quick to Leslie’s lips. “This is a part of human history that has been relentlessly destroyed, subdued and hidden,” he says. “Finally, the time has come to save it.”

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