How a Self-Taught Art Curator Became a Gay Rights Champion

In June of 1969, Charles W. Leslie and his partner, Fritz Lohman, were basking in the success of their first homoerotic art show, which they had put together the month before in their SoHo loft, when they got a phone call from a friend.

He asked if they could immediately join a protest at the Stonewall Inn. It was 2 a.m.

“He said he couldn’t talk but needed as many bodies as possible, so we got dressed,” Mr. Leslie recalled. “When we got there it looked like the end of the world. It was a horrible scene with people screaming and fighting. But that was only the beginning. That one night was not the end. There were other demonstrations.”

It was quite the season for gay rights. Mr. Leslie and Mr. Lohman, who had 500 people attend their first exhibition (they had predicted 100, max), decided to curate more shows. Each one became more popular than the next. “We realized it didn’t have to be all erotic,” Mr. Leslie said. “People came with wonderful political art, romantic art and sociological art.”

In 2016, the gallery and foundation, which had moved on from the couple’s loft years before, officially became the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. The museum, at 26 Wooster Street, has amassed over 30,000 objects, and is the host to six major exhibitions a year. Its current show, “Art After Stonewall 1969-1989,” runs through July 21.

Mr. Lohman died in 2009, but Mr. Leslie has stayed committed to the museum. Last month, Mr. Leslie spoke about his work as a curator, and what has changed culturally over the past 50 years.

The following interview is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Q. How has gay life in New York changed since Stonewall?

A. Before Stonewall if you went to a gay bar they had dancing in the basement. A red light would flash on and off if someone suspicious came in. You had to stop dancing and pretend you were there with a buddy having a beer. Places were being raided, people were being taken off to jail for socializing with each other. After Stonewall, when the city finally realized they had to do something, the changes were absolute. It didn’t happen all at once, it took some time. Sophisticated straight New Yorkers began to come together saying this law needed to be changed, it was undemocratic. There was a movement of sex positivity and sexual freedom, and an acceptance of premarital sex.

Did the pride parade play a part?

The parade was monumental in that it began something; it was like a juggernaut. The moment people were willing to come out in public became crucial. That was in 1970. Once it started, it couldn’t stop.

When you started showing art in your home, was it hard to find artists?

Not at all. Many gay artists who worked in homosexual contexts had been denied venues all their lives. It didn’t matter how brilliant the work was, if they showed it to a museum director or gallerist, it was shunned. Artists flooded in; not all of it was good, but it was all wonderful.

Which pieces have earned you the most notoriety?

Marion Pinto did a dual nude portrait of Fritz (my partner) and myself, and included us in her successful show, “Man as a Sex Object.” We exhibited Keith Haring, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 50 years of being a gallerist committed to gay and lesbian art, what are you most surprised by?

That it took 50 years to become a museum. There was so much stacked against us in the beginning. We couldn’t get any attention for decades. We had wonderful artists and wonderful shows, but we couldn’t get anyone to look at them. Finally The New York Times writer Holland Cotter came to a show in 2007. At the end of his piece he said: “This new space is a pearl beyond price.” That put us on the map.

What did each decade represent to you?

The ’60s was the barest beginning. You had gay art and straight kids taking off the shackles of the Eisenhower years. The ’70s was like a flower opening up. There was hedonism. Everything got surprisingly gay: art, music, dance, theater. The ’80s was a terrible shrinkage because the plague got everyone. The ’90s was about recovery. We discovered artists didn’t go into hiding; there were still a few private venues that showed work. We reestablished ourselves. During the new century things were sort of back to normal. This new decade has brought a new audience of people who weren’t even born when the AIDS crisis was here.

Your first gallery on Wooster Street closed in 1982. Why?

AIDS stopped everything. Everything closed in New York: the baths, bars, social clubs. People were afraid to go into public venues. They stopped coming to the shows. Your friends were dying; we were at memorials, at bedsides, two men died in our home. It was a horrible decade.

What happened to the art scene then?

It shrunk. Gay art became more AIDS-focused. They documented it because mainstream art didn’t. People are disturbed by images if it doesn’t suit their psychology. A still image is very powerful, sometimes in a negative way.

Throughout the AIDS crisis, you salvaged queer art from destruction.

Art is worth rescuing. When people died from AIDS, their families threw out these amazing things, so we started tracking collections. We’d call people and inform them if they found art they didn’t want because of a homoerotic element we’d make them an offer, or take a tax deduction, and that resulted in some gifts. Over 10 years we saved 50 to 80 items. We would go anywhere in the east; Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, to save whatever we could.

What’s one of the most memorable items you salvaged?

Gustav Von Will did these enormous paintings on the walls of the old piers at night. When they tore down the pier we hired a company to cut them out. It was illegal, but we did it anyway.

What are you most proud of for this current show?

That we’ve resurrected some of the early work by artists who first attracted people, like Marion Pinto, Delmas Howe, Sandra DeSando, John Burton Harter, Michela Griffo and Arthur Tress, because we were not allowed to show anything that was out of the mainstream.

What was your vision regarding the importance of gay work?

I had no vision at all. I’m a compulsive doer. It had to do with some vague concept of gay liberation. When people are confronted with imagery, it finally helps them overcome biases and prejudices.

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