It may seem hard to believe, but it’s been nearly a half-century since Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman hosted their first art exhibit. Little did they know that the gay art show mounted in their Prince Street loft in 1969 would lay the groundwork for a niche cultural institution that continues to get bigger and better.
This spring, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (leslielohman.org) will take another huge step with an expansion that will almost double its current size of 3,300 square feet. Its present location at 26 Wooster Street will take over the attached corner retail space at No. 28 in March. Pending construction timing, the additional showroom could open as soon as April.
“It seemed it was a natural move for us. It will allow us to expand in a gradual, controlled fashion, while at the same time make many facility-related improvements,” said museum director Hunter O’Hanian. “This will give us many important gains.”
Top among those improvements are two key programming changes. The first is that a larger space allows the museum to exhibit pieces from its massive collection of more than 24,000 works. That goal is a long time coming, especially considering that some of its queer-centric art has never been exhibited. Additionally, by having two galleries, the museum will no longer have to close while exhibits are installed and deinstalled.
The second programming advancement is perhaps even more significant, because it elevates Leslie-Lohman’s visibility and mission.
“We will continue building a destination museum with a dedicated LGBTQ focus on par with other small, excellent museums in New York, like the Studio Museum of Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, the Rubin, or the Jewish Museum,” said O’Hanian.
Before Leslie-Lohman evolved into an accredited, 501(c)3 non-profit museum in 2011, the gallery was limited in its ability to borrow relevant works from other institutions and individuals. The forthcoming expansion allows for new storage areas that better meet the typical storage requirements for works borrowed from prestigious establishments like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Anyone familiar with the existing SoHo museum knows that the reception desk and tiny gift shop, though well designed for the space, are limited in size and function. With the wall between buildings 26 and 28 soon to be knocked down, the significantly larger square footage will allow for dedicated offices on the corner of Wooster and Grand, where the work of the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation can be better conducted on premises.
An improved visitor greeting area will remain in its current location, and no longer double as staff work spaces. A bigger book and gift shop, small kitchen, additional restroom, and equipment-storage rooms will be added too, while the Wooster Street Window Gallery will extend nearly up to Grand Street.
Apart from adjunct spaces, much of the new showroom will house the Marion Pinto Gallery, named for the SoHo artists’ district pioneer. Her work comprised the first one-woman show ever mounted at the Leslie-Lohman Gallery back in 1975, entitled “Man As A Sex Object.” Pinto famously painted the dual nude of Fritz Lohman and Charles Leslie that hung in Bologna's Museo d’Arte Moderna years later, in the exhibition “Il Nudo.”
Pinto donated her life’s work to the Leslie-Lohman Museum. It’s in good company with works by queer artists as varied as Berenice Abbott, David Hockney, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, George Platt Lynes, Jean Cocteau, Del LaGrace Volcano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Deborah Bright, David Wojnarowicz, and many others.
A greater slate of community events, seminars, and educational programs also will be ushered in.
“The expansion will help us as we move forward in developing an educational program,” said Jonathan David Katz, the president of the museum’s board of directors. “We already have the most robust queer arts speaker and tour program in New York, but this expansion will allow us to expand those efforts even more.”
Currently, the museum is hosting its final exhibition before renovation begins. “Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video” was curated by art historian and board member Peter Weiermair and opened in December.
Under the “desire” theme, the work of 14 artists on display represent a range of styles, “from documentation to elaborately staged photo shoots,” said O’Hanian. Works by famous photographers like Catherine Opie and Greg Gorman join those by less-established artists, including some international ones for whom this exhibit marks their US debut.
“In looking at these works, we see the expression of desire between those depicted in the images,” said Weiermair. “Then, in other works we see the desire between the artists and their subjects. In many instances, as we witness this desire, it evokes our own feelings, regardless of our individual perspective.”
There is no word yet on what exhibits or artists will open the expanded Leslie-Lohman Museum come spring. But we can be sure they will be both insightful and provocative and continue the mission, “to exhibit and preserve art that speaks directly to the many aspects of the LGBTQ experience, and foster the artists who create it.” Charles and Fritz would have it no other way.
MEDIUM OF DESIRE: AN INTERNATIONAL ANTHOLOGY OF PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEO| Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art | 26 Wooster St., btwn. Grand & Canal Sts. | Through March 16: Tue.-Wed., Fri.-Sun. noon-6 p.m.; Thu. noon-8 p.m. | leslielohman.org