Walking into the newly expanded Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Soho feels like a major evolution from its last iteration as a single gallery. The space, which effectively doubled to 5,600 square feet, was inaugurated at Tuesday’s press preview with a speech by the museum’s newly minted director, Gonzalo Casals. Originally from Buenos Aires, Casals is a queer Latino immigrant who’s held prominent positions at cultural institutions like Friends of the High Line and El Museo del Barrio. With this experience in mind, he seems well suited to initiate new efforts to diversify the museum’s collection and programming with non-white, cis-male perspectives.
The most visible change at Leslie-Lohman is its entrance. Gone is the shrunken foyer with its coat check area that awkwardly intruded into the gallery space. Instead, the entrance opens to a reception desk, with space to its right for a forthcoming bookstore. These small changes make the museum feel much less cluttered than before while serving as a bridge between the two galleries. The new one, the Marion Pinto Gallery, is a serviceable addition to the museum. Aesthetically, it offers the standard white walls and flexible space we are accustomed to having at institutions. But thanks to this addition, the museum’s permanent collection will always have a room of its own, one that will be continuously open to the public even when the other gallery is closed for exhibition installations.
For the first exhibition, Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting, major artworks from the museum’s 30,000-piece collection have been installed into thematic sections that cross both time and sexualities (i.e. there is no “lesbian corner” here). This choice is significant given the museum’s past proclivity to focus the majority of its exhibitions on male homoeroticism. From large-scale paintings to small-format photography, the art on view reifies Casals’s desire to diversify the space for all types of queerness. And the museum is better for it. There have been few better opportunities to reconsider what constitutes queer art than to look at 17th-century Jacques Callot caricatures and unattributed 19th-century nude drawings alongside contemporary artists like Catherine Opie, Chitra Ganesh, and Cobi Moules. Here, a lineage is suggested. Intangible as it may be, Expanded Visions argues that queer art has always shifted our perspective. Queerness has the ability to bind people across race, gender, and socioeconomic status through the creation of “alternative” families. And when we see such a large swath of queer creation in a space solely dedicated to it (like the Leslie-Lohman Museum) that sense of family resonates.
“Our gallery space is both a mirror and a window,” said Casals. “If you are queer, you can see yourself in the art and continue exploring your identity. If you are not queer, these works are a window to understanding others.” In addition to rethinking the ways in which its collection is displayed, the museum plans to dedicate more energy to education. “Most of our programming has been focused on adults and senior members of our community, said Kris Grey, the deputy director for education and visitor experience, “so it is important for us to remember that there are other queer members who are even further marginalized that may not have access to explicitly queer platforms.” To this end, the museum is embarking on a series of youth programs that will bring children into the museum space to learn about queer history and art. The first of these programs will occur in the spring. Addressing the question of how one teaches queer art, Grey elaborated, “Certainly we have images in our collection that are about sexuality, but as you can see, there is so much more to queer life than sex. We take a look at intimacy, friendship, and self-imaging a great deal. It is important for all our queer community members to see that we are here for them.”
The Leslie-Lohman Museum envisions its future as an authority on queer culture, yet its exact strategy to achieve that future remains nebulous. How exactly do we reclaim scholarship from a queer perspective, develop the careers of queer people in the arts, and use the museum as an ally for political forces fighting for queer rights? More real estate won’t solve these problems over night, but Casals seems intent on squeezing as much use out of the museum as possible.
When I asked Casals if the museum had considered how to showcase queer performance during its expansion, he led me to the museum’s current office space. He excitedly told me that this would be the site of a new multi-purpose space for video and performance work. Through a new capital campaign, he hopes to move the staff offices downstairs and activate this space (and the museum’s project space on Prince Street) as a site for the queer performance community.
Reinvigorated by the museum’s recent expansion, new possibilities for queer artists seem endless. But once the momentum of this expansion fades, will Leslie-Lohman deliver on its promise to become a queer space for everyone, even those who feel at the margins of queer life? Given the diverse and wonderfully complex world presented in Expanded Visions, it would be a cruel trick to show us a glimpse of what a space like Leslie-Lohman could be without delivering.
Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting opens to the public at the Leslie-Lohman Museum on March 10.