What originally started as an underground art gallery, literally in the basement of a studio on Prince Street in NYC’s SOHO neighborhood, has transitioned to a Museum unlike any other in the world. After establishing a non- profit foundation for gay artists, founders Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman created a gallery with rotating artists, establishing their permanent collection to house art never before seen in most museums.
dot429 sat down with Jerry Kajpust, Director of External Affairs, and Wayne Snellen, Associate Curator and Director of Collections, for a more in depth look into what makes this Gallery the only one of its kind. According to Snellen, “The idea was, and still is, that there are many artists out there whose work will not show in other galleries due to sexual content and [Leslie and Lohman] decided to dedicate the foundation to that cause because they were not afraid to show sexually explicit work that would be controversial or too graphic.” Often art of this nature will be excluded from main stream art collections or gallery exhibitions, which impacts how LGBTQ art in the community is exposed. The foundation aims to create a name for these artists though their shows, embracing their art instead of trying to deny its existence.
Despite its humble beginnings as an underground destination, the gallery is very successful. After several hundred shows and the establishment of the Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation, the gallery has begun the process of moving into Museum-ship. Snellen explains, “We want to establish this as more than just a foundation, but as a national and international destination because there is no other place like this in the world. One reason is the large permanent collection, of over 4,000 pieces of art that have been purchased or donated.”
In an effort to gain more street presence with the new location on Wooster, the gallery is a perfect architectural space for the Window Gallery Project, instigated by curator Jonathan David Katz. The idea is to choose unknown or new artists to fill the windows and promote their art and careers. Kajpust explains, “This has been really helpful for young artists in their career to gain exposure and direction. We host erotic drawing classes on Wednesday nights, which support the artists. Several of [these artists]were able to print their own books and have gone on to launch careers from that.” While the gallery does advertise open calls for new artists, they plan the exhibits about two years in advance. “A majority of our shows are group shows because there are so many artists out there. We combine emerging and established artists often with the permanent collection, which includes Mapplethorpe’s and Warhol’s. But still, there are few limitations or restrictions, so you can be as free and explicit as you would like to be, or your work can be.”
The gallery and foundation have attempted to reach out to the community and have not had to deal with criticism or homophobia. The gallery supports numerous LGBT organizations, including GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and Housingworks. The space is used to launch artists or have gallery shows that follow their mission. Leslie and Lohman help in preserving the aesthetic of SOHO, by saving several of the loft style buildings and establishing the area as an artist district. After new installations, the space becomes more of a social event space for opening night receptions. “There is a large art community, which really helps to build contact and relationships, and the receptions are open to the public as well,” Kajpust says, “It’s really a great way to get introduced to the gallery and see the LGBT creative community really come together.”