A Closer Look: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

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The Leslie-Loham Museum
was recently in the news for receiving accreditation from New York State. I knew about the museum, at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo, but I’d never been there. Today was the day.

They’re currently running an exhibit called The Piers: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront, curated Jonathan Weinberg with Darren Jones (through July 7, 2012). The accompanying program describes the exhibit as “the first museum exhibit to focus exclusively on the relationship of the uses of the Hudson River docks by artists and a newly emerging gay subculture. Between 1971 and 1983, the piers below Fourteenth Street were the site of an enormous range of works by artists as different in their mediums and intentions as Vito Acconci and Peter Hujar, Selley Seccombe and Tava, Gordon Matta-Clark and David Wojnarowicz.”

The piers were a place where not only these artists worked but where you would find the men they captured in photographs and the phallic and sexual artwork that decorated the piers then. (Even I can remember when the Chelsea Piers, now so baby-stroller friendly, was fenced off and reminiscent of the era this exhibit reflects.) This is a decidedly gay male exhibit, keep that in mind. The piers was a cruising ground, and while there were a few transexual and transgender denizens, it was overwhelmingly male and assertively sexual.

The Leslie-Lohman Museum is “the first state-chartered museum devoted to LGBTQ artists and audiences,” and is the successor to the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation. They describe themselves as providing an outlet for art that is unambiguously gay and frequently denied access to mainstream venues. They also provide support to contemporary, emerging artists.

The Museum is named in honor of its co-founders, Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who began showing and collecting art in their SoHo loft in 1969 to provide an outlet for gay artists. During the 1980s when AIDS was devastating the gay population, they decided to preserve art that was often being destroyed by the surviving families who didn’t know what to do with it or found it offensive because of the artists’ sexuality.

This is a small museum but a real must-see. Looking at the photographs, I was struck by memories of where I was when they were taken, and where the LGBT population was at the time. It wasn’t even called ‘LGBT’ then. And many of the memories that came to me were of the men who died, the ones I knew in Los Angeles in the 1980s when I was a barely a man myself, growing up in quick and brutal fashion. This is more than an archive. It’s a collection of images of the souls of men and the imprint of a time and life gone by.

The Museum also has a window exhibit you’ll see from the sidewalk, called “We Are the Youth” that features eight portraits by We Are the Youth, “a photographic journalist project chronicling the individual stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the United States.” This is one for the visit list, and a way to help support the art, artists, and mission of this vital cultural institution.