Banning books, boycotting beer, silencing discourse, and restricting health care—this may sound like a dystopian nightmare, but it’s just a snapshot of the hundreds of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills currently moving through legislatures across the United States.
As Pride Month kicks off, the celebrations this year are set against a wave of unprecedented backlash threatening the funding of countless organizations and institutions working to help the LGBTQIA+ community.
Alyssa Nitchun knows the pressure well. As executive director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art—the only museum in the world dedicated to the work of LGBTQIA+ artists—she is a champion of the community, and her job is to ensure queer artists are represented in the historical canon of fine art. But that requires resources, so the Manhattan museum leverages the worldwide interest in Pride to fundraise and partner with companies that can further its mission.
Bazaar.com spoke with Nitchun about the importance of corporate allyship, the right and wrong ways to get involved, and the museum’s mission going forward.
Starting from the beginning—an exhibition in the founders’ home in 1969—how did Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman’s mission evolve into the museum we see today?
They were lovers of art and had a proud and queer ethos from the get-go. They were living in SoHo in New York City, entertaining their friends, and there was a vibrant queer scene. The impulse to open their home and share their art publicly felt like a natural extension of the culture around them. They really did think it was going to be a long weekend event for just their friends, and then it kept going.
As is the case today, it has continued to grow and endure from a place of deep passion but also of urgency. When the AIDS pandemic hit, they saw their friends’ work being destroyed. People thought the work itself was diseased and were burning it and throwing it on the street. It was that galvanizing force to preserve the work, and the collection is extraordinary because of it, with more than 30,000 artworks.
In the past two years since I’ve been here, we’ve written and approved the first collections management and care policy and an acquisitions policy, which focuses on living artists, transgender and nonconforming, BIPOC, and disabled artists—those who have not traditionally been represented in our collection.
Do you see a parallel between the era of Leslie-Lohman’s founding and what the LGBTQIA+ community is facing today?
In the U.S. alone, there have been [nearly] 500 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced in the past year, and it’s increasingly bleak and increasingly terrifying for queer people. So yes, the policing, the dismantling of civil liberties, the arrests, and the disempowering through education for queer and trans people absolutely feels regressive, and there are similarities to really very bleak moments in our history. At the same time, there is powerful visibility through community and the internet—as cliché as that sounds—that’s fundamentally different.
In a liberal city like New York, are you seeing firsthand the kind of anti-LGBTQIA+ vitriol and hate speech that’s spreading across the country?
Last week, two guys walked into the museum, looked around at the art, and were like, “Hell, no, we don’t want this shit.” They walked out and filmed themselves spitting on our sign and said, “This is what we think of this shit.” It was really unnerving because, by and large, this is a space that feels very safe, joyous, affirming, and celebratory. There’s certainly a change, but it also feels amorphous, which is scary in its own way.
The sheer volume of legislation and the number of violent anti-LGBTQIA incidents happening at this moment in time are staggering. From your perspective, why now?
There is a way in which sexual freedom and gender expansiveness is a direct threat to patriarchy and capitalism. I am not at all surprised that the right—and particularly those in power on the right—have used gender and sexuality as a red herring to create a culture of fear to gain back control.
What is the role of art and institutions like Leslie-Lohman in this fight?
I very firmly believe that the job of Leslie-Lohman is to create a space of radical affirmation, imagination, and possibility. I know those are just words, but I think artists are the ones that bring the oxygen to what those words mean.
I’m a person who believes in the power of art and artists to be world-changing and world-shaping. I want this museum to be a place where people are able to come in, for kids to come in, for adults to come in, for artists to be here and feel celebrated and affirmed and, from that, make their own possibilities.
Each year, June comes around and it seems like every multinational company emerges with rainbow logos, colorful capsule collections, and statements about inclusivity. What is the point of corporate participation in Pride?
To support financially and provide a platform.
And how important is this month for Leslie-Lohman?
How can I explain Pride for a queer arts organization? It’s like working retail at Christmas. We have had some really great partnerships and many repeat partners. I think that brand partnerships are hugely valuable for institutions, not just financially but in terms of telling stories and raising visibility. But you also have brands coming out of the woodwork on May 31 asking how they can support the community. We’re, in fact, a space that celebrates Pride year-round.
It’s a difficult dynamic because on the one hand, you have these performative revenue drivers from brands, but then on the other, that visibility and partnership can make a real difference. What should brands be doing differently to actually support the community?
They should make a donation to the institution and ask them, “How can we support you? We have these goals and this budget and what can we do?” Brands need to come in and do a little more listening and have a little more flexibility, so that it can truly benefit the organization.
Are there any brands doing it right?
We have a great partner in 1stDibs. They came to us last year with the idea of a partnership with mostly digital content. They made a significant donation to the museum, published an interview, and we curated a design section from their LGBTQ+ sellers and it was all very seamless. They came back to us this year, and we decided to make it about the museum but also about one of our seven new board members—the author and activist Raquel Willis—who curated the sale. Naturally, you’re telling the story of an institution, and it’s been a phenomenal example.
We’re also working with Meliá, a very significant hotel group that holds the highest certification for queer hospitality. They came to the institution because they wanted someone who worked with artists. I have to give them respect because they could have just gone to a creative agency and asked them to find an artist and throw a party. They came to a museum because they wanted to invest in an institution that had longevity.
In the face of such an extreme political climate, where does Leslie-Lohman go from here?
We are on the precipice of something very big. We have a little guest book at the entrance of the museum, and the same day of that spitting incident, someone had written, “I’ve been walking around the city feeling weird in my body and then I came inside and for the first time, I feel at peace. I am going to think about what I saw here for the rest of my life.” We get comments like that a lot, and I know this is a space of possibility.