By Brandon Saloy
An announcement in my inbox from an office at FIT: “Queering Institutions,” November 16th, Haft Auditorium. A panel discussion highlighting the responsibility of art institutions to preserve the art of queer people. My little gay head still spinning from the identity crisis our country appeared to be having after the election two days prior, I immediately decided to attend.
Although I like to think myself knowledgeable in all things art and queer, I must admit that I know very little about queer art. I found at the panel discussion that I was not the only one. When asked by a speaker, “Who can name five lesbian artists?” only a handful of people admitted they could. The reaction, or lack thereof, to her follow-up question, “Who here was taught queer history in high school?” explained this phenomenon.
Moderated by Hunter O’Hanian, “Queering Institutions: Collecting, Preserving, and Presenting,” as part of the Queer Culture Lecture and Performance Series at FIT, focused on the history of queer artworks and the institutions in our own city that work hard to sustain them. The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, for instance, is the first and only museum dedicated solely to LGBTQ art, and has grown from one gay couple’s private collection of homoerotic works to a vast accretion of images and objects of increasingly diverse subject matter. This can be advantageous or not; Lecturer and Leslie-Lohman Clerk Jim Saslow remarked that the steady accumulation of work has turned this fringe museum into one of prestige, resulting in the difficult task of preserving the countercultural spirit in which the museum was founded in 1969, or as he contextualizes, “one year before Stonewall.”
“Space Dates,” Jessica Lynn Whitbread, Distributed by Visual AIDS after “Queering Institutions” panel
Aside from the preservation of works made in generations past, the institutions represented at “Queering Institutions,” seek to create spaces in which the current generation feels a comforting sense of community. A group of artists and archivists appropriately called Visual AIDS has developed both an online and in-person registry of the work of HIV-positive artists that is growing and alive, a symbol so vital to the cause of AIDS awareness. Although it does not have a gallery space of its own, this organization works with others to hold exhibitions and develop projects for artists to participate in. Other institutions addressed in this panel are physical homes for queer people; the Lesbian Herstory Archive is tended to day and night by live-in caretakers who create a warm atmosphere for sharing lesbian herstory (history from a female point of view) simply by their physical presence. Archive guests are likely to find half-full coffee cups and other personal effects scattered about the archives.
I expected to learn a lot from the speakers at this panel, but I was not expecting to be personally moved by its tone and message. In a time and social climate so divisive and hateful, I knew that it was important for me to be around other queer people that night, discussing the mark we leave on history is and how we can preserve it for generations to come. Although we live and work on such a visibly queer campus, it is often too easy to disengage from this network. I encourage all of my gay and lesbian and bi and trans peers to reach out, go to events like this one, and give the gift of your presence and energy to this campus.
Nelson Santos of Visual AIDS concluded his presentation with a quote by Felix Gonzales-Torres. It read: “Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry, I was defeated, I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.”