Art

How the Leslie-Lohman Museum Has Championed LGBTQ+ Artists for Decades

Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, pictured here ca. 1970, are the founders of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, pictured here ca. 1970, are the founders of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, the only dedicated LGBTQ+ art museum in the world. Top: the facade of the museum wrapped in art by JEB (Joan E. Biren).

When Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman first invited the public to see their art collection in their Soho loft, in 1969, they could have been fined, or even arrested. Much of the work was blatantly homoerotic, and obscenity laws were still being used to censor and control New York City’s gay and lesbian population. Hundreds more people than they’d anticipated arrived to see the show, and it became clear that the city needed such an art space. 

A month later, they found themselves at the frontier of a new era, as the Stonewall riots ignited the gay liberation movement. But the art world remained largely squeamish about homosexuality and continued to reject the artists whom Leslie and Lohman knew and collected.

So, they opened a gallery in a basement on Prince Street to display their continuously growing collection of work by gay artists, including Neel Bate, George Platt Lynes, Jack Shear and Andy Warhol. (The couple was also instrumental in transforming Soho from a commercial to a residential neighborhood and preserving many of its historical cast-iron buildings.)

In 1990, they established the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation as a nonprofit organization — a hard fought achievement, considering there was no precedent for a foundation with “Gay” in its name — and in 2006, the gallery moved to a storefront at 26 Wooster Street, where it resides to this day. That space, then called the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and now simply the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, is still the only dedicated LGBTQ+ art museum in the world.

This month, 1stDibs is supporting its efforts through sales of art, jewelry, fashion and furniture from our Pride Collection.

Times have changed since Leslie, a real estate investor, and Lohman, an interior designer, began carving out a niche for gay artists. For one, the art world now has room at the table for LBGTQ+ creators as well as a far more expansive and inclusive understanding of queerness. This evolution has enabled the museum to increase its visibility and impact and to establish itself as a rigorous and ambitious contemporary-art institution while also providing a space for those on the margins.

Over the past few years, the institution has seen a number of firsts. In 2016, it earned its museum accreditation and hired its first executive director, Gonzalo Casals (who went on to serve as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs).

It dropped “Gay and Lesbian” from its name in 2019 — a sign of the expansion of its mission to include queer and gender-fluid art and artists — and also hired its first chief curator, Stamatina Gregory. And last year, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art appointed its first female-identifying executive director, Alyssa Nitchun, who spent seven years at Creative Time, the producer of socially engaged, cutting-edge public art installations throughout New York City.

Aimée Chan-Lindquist (left), the Leslie-Lohman’s director of external affairs, and executive director Alyssa Nitchun share a moment in front of the 30-portrait installation Face Art, 1983, by Lorenza Böttner
Aimée Chan-Lindquist (left), the Leslie-Lohman’s director of external affairs, and executive director Alyssa Nitchun share a moment in front of the 30-portrait installation Face Art, 1983, by Lorenza Böttner at the museum. Photo by Kendall Bessent

“On the one hand, the Leslie-Lohman is a place of experimentation, radicality, possibility and imagination,” says Nitchun. “But I also want it to be taken seriously as an institution.”

Given the increase in queer visibility and the fact that more LGBTQ+ artists are finding representation in the mainstream art world, some might wonder why we still need museums like the Leslie-Lohman.

“Yes, the art community has changed, and you’re seeing more LGBTQ artists in museum and gallery shows, but the Leslie-Lohman is purely for us,” says Dave Harper, executive director of the New York City AIDS Memorial. “It is willing to take risks outside the market, outside of what is commercially valuable, outside of art superstars.”

In that regard, the Leslie-Lohman is currently presenting the first U.S. exhibition of work by Lorenza Böttner, a transgender German performance artist, painter and dancer who lost both her arms in her youth and yet persevered creatively. She died from HIV-related causes in 1994.

Here, historical pieces from the museum's collection accompany archival photos of Leslie and Lohman's Soho loft (top left and bottom right), where the couple first showed their cache of art.
Here, historical pieces from the museum’s collection accompany archival photos of Leslie and Lohman’s Soho loft (top left and bottom right), where the couple first showed their cache of art.

“This is an artist who has never previously shown in the U.S., who has not been part of the art historical canon, who is not in collections yet represents this timely, expansive intersection and multiplicity of identities. And the work is really good,” says Nitchun. “It feels like a very specific kind of contribution that the Leslie-Lohman can do well.”

In recent years, the museum has also been exploring the intersections of different marginalized identities, including queerness, race and disability. Last year, for instance, it mounted the first comprehensive retrospective of the trailblazing Chicanx lesbian photographer Laura Aguilar, who was open about her struggles with mental illness.

“We’re doing the work to be a catalyst and rethink what it means to be a cultural institution that serves and engages all of these different intersections, and to say this is how we talk about ability and disability and transness and bring in communities throughout the whole of it,” says Aimée Chan-Lindquist, the museum’s director of external affairs.

“MoMA has these artists, but if there is a dick in one of them or an expression of sexuality, it’s not going up on the wall.”

In addition to bringing more rigor to the exhibitions program, Nitchun and her team (which includes several people in newly created roles, including director of engagement and inclusion J. Soto and Chan-Lindquist) have developed an acquisitions policy focused more on living artists and groups underrepresented in the collection.

As part of that strategy, they’ve spearheaded a new program called Interventions, which provides contemporary artists with grants to research and engage with works in the museum’s holdings. For the first Intervention, slated for winter 2023, the Honolulu-born, Los Angeles–based trans photographer, documentarian and performer Coyote Park (who has Korean, Yurok and European ancestry) has been restaging homoerotic work from the 1990s by artists such as Yiannis Nomikos and Li Ming Shun.

Last year’s acquisitions reflect the museum’s increasingly bold and ambitious approach to building its collection. Among them were works by Jonathan Lyndon Chase and Jeffrey Gibson — two names likely familiar to contemporary-art enthusiasts — along with a major piece by transgender artist Cassils. 

Video documentation of Böttner’s 1986 performance
Let me live in New York
Currently on display is video footage of Böttner’s 1986 performance Let me live. Photo by Kendall Bessent

Cassils’s installation consists of a glass box containing several hundred gallons of urine, set on a pedestal and accompanied by the vessels used to collect and store the fluid. The artist created the work in response to the Trump administration’s reversal of an Obama-era policy allowing public school students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The work may present logistical challenges when it comes to presenting, storing and conserving it, but Nitchun is undeterred. “If the Leslie-Lohman isn’t a home for this piece, where is?” she asks.

“In terms of acquisitions and collections, we need to be that place — the  place of if not here, then where?” adds Chan-Lindquist. That question has been a guiding principle of the museum since its inception. Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman clearly had an eye for art that happened not to belong anywhere else — the Soho apartment they shared is still covered with images that include penises. (Leslie is 88; Lohman died in 2010, at age 87.)

During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, their collecting took on a greater sense of urgency and activism, as they rescued hundreds of works whose makers had died.

A montage of Leslie-Lohman public programs and special events over the years.
A montage of Leslie-Lohman public programs and special events over the years.

“They were constantly getting calls: ‘So-and-so has passed away, and the family is burning their art.’ That’s when the collecting really picked up,” Nitchun says. “Some might critique the museum for ossifying around a cis-white-gay-male culture. But on the other hand, you can also really understand that it was a refuge and sanctuary for a community and it coalesced for complex reasons.”

Over the years, the collection has grown to more than 30,000 objects, including pieces by artists well-known in LGBTQ+ circles, like Mariette Pathy Allen, Donna Gottschalk, Jimmy DeSana, Hugh Steers and Eric Rhein. But there are also plenty of blue-chip household names.

Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge, 2017, by Camilo Godoy, from the 2021–22 exhibition "OMNISCIENT: Queer Documentation in an Image Culture."
Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge, 2017, by Camilo Godoy, was blown up to billboard size and included in the Leslie-Lohman exhibition “OMNISCIENT: Queer Documentation in an Image Culture” in 2021–22. © Camilo Godoy

“We have Warhols and Mapplethorpes and Keith Harings, but ours are way more representative of our sexuality,” says Michael Manganiello, president of the museum’s board of trustees. “MoMA has these artists, but if there is a dick in one of them or an expression of sexuality, it’s not going up on the wall. Our lives are edited out of these museums. That’s why the Leslie-Lohman is so important.”

In 2019, Manginello announced a bequest to the museum of $500,000 and his collection of more than 150 objects, including artworks by Peter Berlin, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson and Tyler Udall.

Left: Nitchun and Chan-Lindquist stand in front of one of Soho’s landmark historical cast-iron buildings, which Leslie and Lohman worked hard to preserve as the neighborhood transformed from an industrial to a residential hub. Right: A detail of Chitra Ganesh’s mural A city will share her secrets if you know how to ask, on view through January 2023. Photos by Kendall Bessent

Nitchun and her team are also busy plying other fundraising avenues. Last year, they partnered with the city on a capital renovation project, which began under former executive director Casals and is just moving into the implementation phase. This will allow the museum to restore its historic facade and double its exhibition space. They’ve also received grants to overhaul things like the cataloguing and digitizing of the museum’s art collection and vast archives.

In addition to these projects and the 1stDibs collaboration, they are partnering with Gucci on a Pride Month Queer Icons conversation series and just received funding from the Ford Foundation for queer disability programming.

“There is a move toward a kind of a professional rigor in terms of what we want to achieve as a museum. It’s a kind of growing up,” says Nitchun. “We decided we want to be in it for the long term.”

Alyssa Nitchun and Aimée Chan-Lindquist’s Quick Picks from 1stDibs’ Pride Collection

Joanina and David Pastoll for Studio Stirling Pride sling chair, new
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Joanina and David Pastoll for Studio Stirling Pride sling chair, new

“Everything about this piece is value-add: chic comfort for Zooms, play parties or just curling up with a well-worn copy of Madison Moore’s Fabulous — PLUS, your dollars are going directly to support the craftsperson’s gender-affirming surgery.” — Alyssa Nitchun

<i>Untitled (For Act Up)</i>, 1990, by David Wojnarowicz, offered by Hal Bromm Gallery
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Untitled (For Act Up), 1990, by David Wojnarowicz, offered by Hal Bromm Gallery

“David Wojnarowicz’s work is personally very special to me for multiple reasons. First is Wojnarowicz’s exhibition ‘Tongues of Flame: Works 1979–1989,’ held from November 17, 1990, to January 5, 1991 at Exit Art, where I had the pleasure of working until the very end of the organization.
“Wojnarowicz’s important works are of course included in Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art’s permanent collection and forefront the interrelationship of art and social justice for LGBTQ+ communities. LLMA and Exit Art share so many of the same values, and the work feels deeply connected to my past and my present.”  — Aimée Chan-Lindquist

<i>Somewhere/Nowhere</i>, ca. 1990, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, offered by EHC Fine Art
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Somewhere/Nowhere, ca. 1990, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, offered by EHC Fine Art

“Felix Gonzales-Torres so adeptly expanded our notions of art, life and loss. His spirit still powerfully moves in our world today. In fact, we’re featuring several of his works in ‘Indecencia,’ Leslie-Lohman’s upcoming fall exhibition focusing on the radical legacy of Argentinian theologian and activist Marcella Althaus-Reid, her contributions to queer studies and, in particular, her indecent theology.” — Nitchun

Aldo Cipullo for Cartier gold ziggurat ring, ca. 1970, offered by Kentshire
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Aldo Cipullo for Cartier gold ziggurat ring, ca. 1970, offered by Kentshire

“I have been obsessed with wearing enormous rings (think large Mood rings) on my tiny fingers ever since I was a small child. To this day, you won’t find me without rings on my fingers. This piece is so stunning and special!” — Chan-Lindquist

<i>Babaza II</i>, 2019, by Zanele Muholi, offered by HK Art Advisory
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Babaza II, 2019, by Zanele Muholi, offered by HK Art Advisory

“I first encountered Zanele’s portraits when I was at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Their candid beauty and fresh visual activism was captivating. With awe, I have watched their practice and presence grow exponentially.” — Nitchun

Keith Haring Pop Shop hats, 1980s, offered by Lot 180
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Keith Haring Pop Shop hats, 1980s, offered by Lot 180

“I live in the East Village with my two small sons. For the past two years my youngest has requested being (and subsequently dressed up as) Keith Haring for Halloween. My oldest coincidentally dressed up as Andy Warhol. This particular ephemera would certainly bring endless joy to my family!” ” — Chan-Lindquist

<i>It Is Time For All Of Us To Raise Our Hands,</i> 2016, by Glenn Ligon, offered by EHC Fine Art
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It Is Time For All Of Us To Raise Our Hands, 2016, by Glenn Ligon, offered by EHC Fine Art

” ‘It is time for all of us to raise our hands’ — enough said. Thank you, Glenn. I’d like to think of our work at Leslie-Lohman as a form of hand raising, beckoning you to look here, see this, the radical possibilities of imagination, affirmation and creative protest.” — Nitchun

Eileen Gray for ClassiCon Non Conformist chair, new
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Eileen Gray for ClassiCon Non Conformist chair, new

“I mean, Eileen Gray is everything: a bad-ass, openly bisexual designer born in 1878 (who lived to be ninety-eight years old!). And this chair is so indicative of all the everything: classic, nonconformist, black leather, metal.

“My father was an architect and I have been very fortunate to be exposed to timeless design my entire life. I have a particular fondness for Eileen Gray, given the quintessential Eileen Gray side table that welcomes my glass of wine in the evening.” — Chan-Lindquist

Alexander McQueen Plato's Atlantis body stocking, Spring/Summer 2010, offered by One Of A Kind Archive
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Alexander McQueen Plato's Atlantis body stocking, Spring/Summer 2010, offered by One Of A Kind Archive

“I’m a fool for a bodysuit and a total McQueen fangirl, so this piece is heaven. It’s from Plato’s Atlantis, one of McQueen’s last shows and perhaps his most future forward, a future we’re still jumping hurdles to inhabit with as much vigor as he did.” — Nitchun

<i>Hot! Wild! Unrestricted!</i>, 2009, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery
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Hot! Wild! Unrestricted!, 2009, by Mickalene Thomas, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery

“This particular body of work inhabits a pretty exceptional memory for me. We were fortunate enough to do an amazing studio visit with Mickalene during my time at Art in General. From the incredible generosity and grace of Mickalene in hosting us and sharing the work to seeing the incredible studio and the works juxtaposed against the sets themselves — the sofas and fabrics, et cetera — it is such an indelible memory.” — Chan-Lindquist

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