Virtual Issues

The “Rich Gay”? Small Museums & Funding “Difficult” History

Kelsey Brow & Joshua Buckner

Kelsey Brow is the Executive Director of King Manor Museum in Jamaica, NY. Kelsey is a participant in the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Joshua Buckner is a Museum Curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, VA. Joshua is a participant in the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

The notion of the “Rich Gay” is historically a pervasive cultural trope. History has painted pictures of “lifelong bachelors” and “spinsters” who are art collectors, theatre financiers, fashion gurus, or social advocates. Take, for example, the very popular re-boot of the television show Queer Eye1 that showcases five queer-identifying men transforming the lives of others by enhancing their wardrobe, home, and lifestyle without an explanation of cost or budget. But where is the money to curate queer museum exhibitions? Despite being fairly well represented in the cultural workforce, the LGBTQIA+2 community lacks significant representation in both museological scholarship and power at the trustee level. According to a 2016 Building Movement Project study of U.S. nonprofit workers, 21% of respondents self-identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (Thomas-Breitfeld & Kunreuther, 2016). This Virtual Issue looks into challenges and opportunities of funding LGBTQIA-identified curatorial projects about “challenging” topics or “difficult histories.” In particular, we’ll examine small museums — where money is always a struggle — and where such topics may not appeal to funders and board members, despite the representation of queer people in those entities.

A 2019 New York Times article discussing the scrutiny of board members in the museum field, revealed that “upward of one-fifth of [museum] annual budgets” rely on the support and power of their board members. In return for their generous donations, affluent board members or funders are often rewarded with new building additions named in their honor and unrestricted access to collections. Pressure to appeal to their interests (and wallets) often earns them considerable influence on what the museum does and does not present in exhibitions. For museums that want to engage with “difficult history” this can become a tug-of-war with conservative boards and community members who may dangle their support and checkbooks in return for controlling the topics covered in exhibitions and programs.

There is a need and a demand in the field for spaces that broaden the historical conversation and embrace the constant shift in society toward cultural diversity. How do smaller museums negotiate this balance and fund their exhibits? More and more, museums are becoming sites for discussions around social issues, inclusion, and diversity. At many sites, these conversations are geared towards horrific events like slavery or genocide, or interprete history from a different perspective, which can be challenging for conservative boards and/or audiences who are uncomfortable with questioning long-held beliefs or perceptions. In the book Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, Julia Rose describes “difficult history” as “histories of oppression, violence, and trauma” (Rose, 2016, p. 25).

In this Virtual Issue, we looked at the record of research on museums addressing “difficult history” as it pertains to the LGBTQIA community. This community represents nearly a quarter of the museum workforce in the United States (Thomas-Breitfeld & Kunreuther, 2016). Also in the US, the American Alliance of Museums has a specific professional network, the LGBTQ+ Alliance, dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ museum workforce and is “committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and inquiry with particular respect to sexual orientation and gender identity within museums” (American Alliance of Museums, 2019). However, the level of diversity and inclusion does not seem to manifest in either exhibition content or scholarship. A review of the literature published in Curator using key words of “queer,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexuality,” “bixsexual,” “transgender,” and “intersex,” reveals one article that specifically addresses the LGBTQIA community in museums: Patrik Steorn’s 2012 article Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice, which we discuss later in this article.

Why is there so little scholarly research focused around museums and the LGBTQIA+ community in the Curator archives? While LGBTQIA+ rights have been a major topic of discussion since the Stonewall riots and the often overlooked 1966 riots at Compton’s Cafe in San Francisco, scholarly museum work has only slowly begun to emerge in the last decade. The 2010 collection of essays in Gender, Sexuality, and Museums (Levin, 2010) and the book Interpreting LGBTQ History at Museums and Historic Sites published by the American Association of State and Local History (Ferentinos, 2014) broach this topic from an academic perspective, but this work has not been strongly represented in Curator. The authors of this Virtual Issue reached out to the current editor of Curator, John Fraser, to better understand why there is a lack of published work focused on the LGBTQIA+ community in the archives. Fraser, who is one of the editors of the frequently cited publication “Where is Queer?” a special issue of the journal Museums & Social Issues (Fraser & Heimlich, 2008), stated that the journal tries to be open and solicits papers focusing on this topic. However, he said the submissions rarely come across the journal’s desks. Today, museum studies programs churn out emerging museum professionals who focus on the social impact museums have on minority communities and want to make museums more inclusive. There is a demand for academic research on how museums can “queer” space, exhibitions focused on LGBTQIA+ historical persons, and policies on how museums can educate their staff and visitors on sexual orientation and gender expression topics. We call for museum professionals in the LGBTQIA+ community to submit to Curator and other scholarly journals. Now is the time to have discussions around how not only the gay and lesbian communities interpret museums, but also how transgender, non-binary, queer, two-spirit, and intersex persons see themselves within this field.

A search for “small museums” in the Curator archives brings up less than ten pieces written in the last decade. Many revolve around community curation, inclusivity, and visitor experience, but none discuss funding. Where financial concerns are mentioned, it is nothing beyond a sentence referencing grant funds secured for a single institution’s special project or noting that grant funds are needed to implement diversification strategies into practice (Smith, 2018; Fischer et al, 2017).

Changes in museum funding strategies tend to come from the top. In summarizing the evolution of museums and museum practice in his nearly fifty-year career, Tom L. Freudenheim, an editorial board member of Curator and a museum scholar who held leadership positions at the National Endowment for the Arts and several museums, discusses the “frighteningly pervasive” idea of a “museum as a money-making machine”  (Freudenheim, 2010). Freudenheim describes a decades-long shift in this power that now favors a broader range of constituents, including members of underrepresented communities, social justice seekers, and individuals who feel disenfranchised from the museum in their communities. As socially minded museum professionals working in smaller institutions, how do we convince board members and conservative local communities that engaging in what some may consider “difficult histories” is beneficial for both the museum and the community?

Co-author Joshua Buckner’s previous studies regarding incorporating LGBTQIA histories into museum settings, and how museums choose (or not choose) to discuss LGBTQIA histories, reveal several reasons many institutions are not comfortable discussing these histories. Many museums do not know how to approach discussing the topic, they do not understand it, or are not comfortable with claiming the authority to discuss the history of a community they do not belong to themselves (Buckner, 2016). This discomfort in discussing LGBTQIA histories in turn hinders visitors coming to museums seeking to find themselves represented in exhibits and programs. In Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice, Patrik Steorn compares the work of two twentieth-century Swedish artists, both highlighting nudes (one nude females and the other nude males). Respectively, one is seen as a collection of masterpieces, while the other is seen as a collection of curiosities and hidden away in the museum. The result is a heteronormative narrative in the museum, and as Steorn explains, illustrates “how a heterosexual privilege has biased aesthetic judgments and…led to the exclusion of homoerotic motifs…” (Steorn, 2012, p. 357). This example shows how a museum can exclude queer history, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by not willingly opening the lines of communication around the topic.

In contrast, homosexuality and aesthetics coalesce at the Alice Austen House, a nationally registered LGBTQ historic site on Staten Island, a borough of New York City. Alice Austen, one of the United States’ earliest non-studio female photographers, lived in the Staten Island house in a loving relationship with Gertrude Tate for 30 years (https://aliceausten.org). Their home is now part of the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative through the National Park Service that identifies “places and events associated with the story of LGBTQ Americans for inclusion in the parks and programs of the National Park Service” (National Park Service, 2014). Although recognized by the National Park Service, the Alice Austen House is run by a small, independent non-profit incorporated in Staten Island. For context, Staten Island was the only one of New York City’s five boroughs to have the majority vote for the conservative Republican candidate, Donald Trump, in the 2016 presidential election and has long been known as a conservative anomaly in liberal New York City (Rubenstein, 2019).

Co-author Kelsey Brow spoke with Executive Director of the Alice Austin House museum, Victoria Munro, about challenges with funding LGBTQIA history in a politically conservative environment. Board members, local corporations, and local council members are significant sources of funding for New York City’s many small historic houses. According to Munro, asking conservative councilmembers for discretionary funds for an LGBTQIA-identified historic site can be daunting. It is hard for small museums to compete with pride centers (community centers that provide a variety of services like counseling, support groups, or medical information) for limited funding. The LGBTQIA+ community tends to prioritize what it sees as direct services like health and safety. Museums, Munro states, “do provide a direct service” to the queer community by allowing people within the community to see themselves reflected in history. Munro further points out that they also provide a safe space, particularly for young people to go without being labeled if they are not out3 or don’t have supportive families. As museum workers well know, it is difficult to communicate the quantitative impact of our work in order to gain political or monetary support. Even more difficult is measuring the impact of queer historical sites or LGBTQIA-engaged exhibitions, as these topics have yet to be substantially dealt with by museums, visitor studies, and museology.

The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in 1969 at Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The riots began after a New York City Police raid on the bar and led to nearly a week of protests in the area. With this major historical milestone for the LGBTQIA community, many museums in the United States began to highlight the history, struggle, and visibility (or lack thereof) of the LGBTQIA community by providing spaces for conversations and exhibitions on societal issues. For example, the traveling exhibition, Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement, created by the Newseum in Washington, D.C., is currently touring throughout the United States and portrays historic moments in the fight for gay rights through artifacts and historical videos. But at $65,000, exclusive of shipping and insurance, this traveling exhibit is far out of the price range of small museums. The 2019 exhibition Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society also commemorated the anniversary with nearly a year of programming and related smaller exhibitions from their archives and collections. Both of these exhibitions were funded, at least in part, by major banks — the Newseum exhibit by Wells Fargo and the New-York Historical exhibit by Bank of America. Bank of America prides itself on being “the first financial institution to incorporate sexual orientation into [their] non-discrimination policies,” making them a strong ally for the LGBTQIA community (Verducci, 2019). Because of a smaller profile, lower foot traffic, and lack of comparative prestige, it is difficult for smaller museums to secure sponsorships from large corporations like these.

So how does one fund LGTBQIA-related exhibitions in small museums in spite of funder opposition? As Munro puts it, “you have to think out of the box.” This is good advice for all small museums, but particularly for those that want to engage in topics their community may want to see, but may be at odds with conservative-leaning funding sources. Substantive partnerships with other organizations and sponsorships from LGBTQIA-allied companies could open small museums to larger income streams that allow for more flexibility to engage with broader exhibit narratives. These partners are not as hard to find as you might think, even if you’re a small museum without a trained marketing professional. A quick internet search for “lgbt market research” brings up helpful websites such as Community Marketing & Insights (https://communitymarketinginc.com) or Gay Ad Network (https://www.gayadnetwork.com/research). There are also local LGBT Chambers of Commerce across the United States, and in many other countries as well, that offer networking opportunities and many other resources.

As the LGBTQIA community becomes more visible and accepted in popular culture, it is imperative that museums work with the community to tell more inclusive and accurate stories about the past, even if they face adverse pressure from conservative funders. In their 2019 article “Engaging Audiences with Difficult Pasts,” Black and Reynolds wrote that “being confronted by perspectives that are so very different to one’s own understanding is unavoidably uncomfortable and, in some cases, may risk further entrenching divisions. However…a more-rounded engagement…and an awareness of its constructive objectives certainly help allay any such fears and encourage a willingness to accept challenging narratives of the past” (Reynolds, 2019). It is also critical that scholarly museum journals, like Curator, whose scope is to provide a “forum for exploration and debate of the latest issues, practices, and policies…of current concern of the community” publish articles that specifically address the impact museums have on the LGBTQIA+ community and how queer museum professionals are changing how the world views museums. As Fraser stated, the literature “is an important lens that directs where future attention should be paid” and that attention can be focused on the LGBTQIA+ community (Fraser, 2020). And to fund exhibits that discuss those narratives? Museums need to make their case to fund queer exhibts not only to board members, donors, or local politicians, but also to the LGTBQIA community, who has not traditionally been represented in museums or museological discourse and has carved out other places of interest and influence. Maybe the “rich gay” is out there in real life, just waiting to be asked to fund an exhibit in a small museum.

Notes

  1. For information about Queer Eye, see https://www.netflix.com/title/80160037. For more about the history of the series, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_Eye_(2018_TV_series)
  2. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (and/or questioning), intersex, asexual (and/or allies). Source: https://lgbtqia.ucdavis.edu/educated/glossary
  3. Being “outed” is related to exposing or revealing the sexuality or gender identity of an individual. Being “out” is often considered to be a major milestone for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

References

American Alliance of Museums. (2019). LGBTQ Alliance Welcoming Guidelines for Museums. Retrieved from https://www.aam-us.org/professional-networks/lgbtq-alliance/resources/

Aslan, I. (2019). New-York Historical Society Commemorates 50th anniversary of Stonewall Uprising with Special Exhibitions and Programming, New-York Historical Society, Press Release. Retrieved from https://www.nyhistory.org/press/releases/new-york-historical-society-commemorates-50th-anniversary-stonewall-uprising-special

Black, G. & Reynolds, C. (2019). Engaging Audiences with Difficult Pasts: The Voices of ‘68 Project at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Curator. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cura.12346

Buckner, J. (2016). How Can We Talk About It? Disrupting Heteronormativity Through Historic House Museums. University of Washington.

Ferentinos, S. (2014). Interpreting LGBT history at museums and historic sites (Vol. 4). Rowman & Littlefield.

Fraser, J. (2020). “Information about Submissions on LGBTQIA+ Topics.” Message to the authors. 14 August 2020. E-mail.

Freudenheim, T. (2010). Fifty Museum Years, and then Some. Curator: The Museum Journal, 50: 55-62. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2007.tb00249.x

Gibson, S. (2017). “Let’s talk about sex”: visitor comments in Contraception: Uncovering the collection of Dame Margaret Sparrow. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 47-65. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cura.12190

Levin, A. K. (Ed.). (2010). Gender, sexuality and museums: A Routledge reader. Routledge.

Fraser, J.& Heimlich, J. (Eds.) (2008). Where is Queer? [Special issue]. Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse. 3(1) 161- 285. https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ymsi20/3/1

National Park Service. (2014). Secretary Jewell Announces New National Park Service Theme Study to Interpret, Commemorate Sites Related to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/articles/upload/LGBTQ-National-Park-Service-Press-Release.pdf

Pogrebin, R., Harris, E.A, & Bowley, G. (2019), “New Scrutiny of Museum Board Takes Aim at World of Wealth and Status.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/arts/design/whitney-art-museums-trustees.html

Rose, J. (2016). Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rubenstein, D. (2019), Staten Island, Trump’s New York redoubt, talks succession, Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/17/staten-island-trumps-new-york-redoubt-talks-secession-086571

Smith, R. (2012), Searching for “Community”: Making English Rural History Collections Relevant Today. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 51-63. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2011.00120.x

Steorn, P. (2012). Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 355-365. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2012.00159.x

Thomas-Breitfeld, S. & Kunreuther, F. (2016). Working at the Intersections: LGBTQ Nonprofit Staff and the Racial Leadership Gap. Retrieved from https://racetolead.org/lgbtq/

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