Gay Gallery Seeks Museum Status, Funding

“I guess they focus on a particular kind of art here,” drawled Emily Germain dryly, as she sauntered into Soho’s Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation on 26 Wooster Street on a wet Saturday. Ms. Germain, a petit and unfazeable 27-year-old, is finishing up her masters in social work at N.Y.U. and dropped into the gallery on a whim. Its current show, “Four Visions”, features paintings by a quartet of artists who don’t shy away from depicting specifics of the male form and, in some cases, several male forms combining in erotic acts and poses. “There are a lot of penises here,” she said.

The Leslie/Lohman gallery, named for its founders, Charles W. Leslie, and his partner, J. Frederic “Fritz” Lohman, who passed away in 2009, has been presenting erotic and often explicit work by “unambiguously” gay artists, mostly men, since its founding in a modest storefront space in Soho in 1990.

Now, the gallery, which is a nonprofit foundation known for the 4,000 works in its collection, its provocative fare and its lively parties, is on a mission to go mainstream. The centerpiece of the plan is to win designation as a museum in a New York State Board of Regents vote next month.  CUNY art history professor James M. Saslow, author of Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, a board member, is shepherding their application for museum status through the byzantine State Department of Education. So far, it’s gotten a “favorable review” and the Department of Education passed it along to the Regents, who have the final say in May. The Regents normally greenlights the Department’s recommendations.

Mr. Leslie can’t be sure of what will happen, but he knows of no formal opposition to his museum dreams at this time. And the proposal does dovetail with the state’s stated goals to boost diversity in their cultural tourism offerings. For the gallery, the designation as museum would mean greater acceptance, and the public and private grant dollars that might follow.

“We’ve been struggling in the darkness for many years,” Mr. Leslie said recently. “These efforts will help us help gay art continue morphing into something much broader and bigger.”

Certainly, the gay perspective, the queer aesthetic, so to speak, is not hidden under a decoratively hand-painted bushel in contemporary culture. But explicit art of any kind, gay or straight, with the exception of the tasteful anatomical study, remains on the margins. 

The National Portrait Gallery’s controversial “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition, which closed in mid-February, was a watershed event in both the art and gay communities. It underscored the historical significance of gay art as well as its continuing position as a lightning rod in the culture wars. Still, “Hide/Seek” had a markedly lower penis-to-frame ratio than almost any Leslie/Lohman exhibition.

Tim Webster, 24, a Brooklyn artist in the M.F.A. program at Hunter College, thinks the gallery’s mission to preserve gay art of earlier eras, and particularly the work and collections of those who perished of AIDS, has been “enormously valuable.” At the same time, he didn’t fully endorse its programming, “There’s more to the gay experience than the kind of sex we have.” Mr. Webster has been to several of the popular and scene-y openings at Leslie/Lohman, and while they were fun, he also found them “a little tacky, with shirtless bartenders.”

“Well, no one was having sex behind the bar,” said Jerry Kajpust, the gallery’s director of external affairs. “Look at advertising, half-naked men and women attract people. That’s just a fact.”

Art collector Mark Grischke, a fashion stylist and editorial director, came across the Leslie/Lohman gallery in the early ’90s, “when it was hiding in plain sight on Prince Street and it was thrilling to discover this haven where I could see gay art, meet gay artists and start collecting.”  His original purchase of gay art, a Robert W. Richards charcoal of a handsome man dangling a high-heeled shoe from his lips, was bought off the wall during his first visit to Leslie/Lohman, and the piece remains his favorite. “It’s both perfectly respectable and slightly louche,” he grins.

Writer and longtime Leslie/Lohman supporter Perry Brass sees three stages in gay art in the Unite States. “There’s before Stonewall, when gay artists remained hidden or encoded; then there was the post-1969 Stonewall Rebellion period,” which ushered in the gay civil rights movement. “That was a real ‘Hold your hats and hallelujah, Mama’s going give it to you’ period,” said Mr. Brass, quoting Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in Gypsy, the musical, to describe the cascade of art both commercially successful and exuberant, or AIDS-era defiant and imperative, like Robert Mapplethorpe or David Wojnarowicz.

Now, we’re in a “post-Brokeback Mountain era,” Mr. Brass said, trying to define what a gay artist is and “how far the identity can stretch,” even as some gays seem intent on pushing for “same as” status with heterosexuality, all wedding bands and carpooled kids, and art where the sexuality of the artist is moot.  

Mr. Brass praises Mr. Leslie as a kind of impresario championing artists whose work has not found a place elsewhere. “Charles literally invented artists” by given them a platform when homophobia or queasiness threatened to strangle any sustaining lifeline for their development. When asks what speaks to him most in art, Mr. Leslie describes “the romantic aesthetic, an erotic frisson, and I find art with political content thrilling.”

The aspirations of Leslie/Lohman are to expand to a three-headed entity: part gallery where art can be purchased; part foundation to support gay artists and collect their work; and part museum to show and educate the public about the art of this community.

But at the end of the day, for the viewer, it’s all about what kind of work you like and where you feel comfortable hanging it. For some collectors, including a Financial District psychotherapist whose home-office practice is comprised mostly of attorneys and bankers, pieces purchased from Leslie/Lohman are strictly relegated to “bedroom art” status.

As for Ms. Germain, she judged the work on her visit “like porn … but artistic.” She doesn’t think her boyfriend would allow her to have erotic art in their apartment, but “everybody loves nudity, but some people are afraid to say it.” She turned to another work featuring several creatively intertwined male bodies. “O.K., well, that’s a little graphic.”

Gay Gallery Seeks Museum Status, Funding