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Patronage II: The Western World since 1900  
 
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Prominent Queer Patrons: Betty Parsons

Prominent New York gallery owner, Betty Parsons (1900-1982) fostered the work of gay and lesbian artists during the era of sexual repression following World War II. Raised in a wealthy New York family, she married Schuyler Parsons (1892-1967), a rich socialite, in 1919, but she divorced him in 1923 in Paris. Until dwindling financial resources forced her to return to the United States in 1933, she remained in Paris, where she studied painting. Friendly with Romaine Brooks and other leading figures in the American expatriate lesbian community, she was open about her romantic relationship with the Anglo-Irish painter, Adge Baker. However, in the more conservative environment of America, Parsons retreated into the closet and concealed her affairs with women from public view.

In 1936, Parsons had her first solo show at the Midtown Galleries, New York, the first of ten exhibitions there over the next 20 years, and she subsequently worked at this gallery, selling art on commission. In 1944 she was asked by dealer Mortimer Brandt to start a contemporary art section for his gallery, which until then had specialized exclusively in Old Masters. During the next two years at the Brandt Gallery, she exhibited such artists as Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko.

Sponsor Message.

When Brandt decided to withdraw from the field of modern art in 1946, Parsons established her own gallery, the Betty Parsons Gallery, which became one of the most prestigious venues for progressive American art by 1950. Between 1946 and 1952, her gallery annually exhibited works by Jackson Pollock as well as Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Rothko, Clyfford Still, and other leading figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement. However, Parsons never focused on only one kind of art and always tried to show many different interesting and provocative works. As Gibson has suggested, Parsons' insistence upon diversity may be correlated with her lesbian identity, which inherently involves rejection of dominant, monolithic social and sexual categories.

In 1952, the newly famous Pollock, Rothko, and Still presented Parsons with an ultimatum, demanding that she exhibit only Abstract Expressionist paintings if she wished to retain them as clients. Because Parsons refused to cede to this demand, the three artists severed their connections with her gallery, which had established their artistic reputations. Publicly, Pollock and his colleagues insisted that they objected only to the stylistic diversity of Parsons' gallery. However, it has been suggested that Pollock and others were disturbed by her inclusion of gay male and lesbian artists.

Among the artists to whom Pollock objected was Alphonso Ossorio (1916-1990), a gay painter, who, already during the 1950s, challenged Abstract Expressionism by creating opulent, decorative abstract paintings, which foreshadowed his later work in collage. Also represented by Parsons, Forrest Bess (1911-1977) created whimsical paintings with themes, such as Untitled (ca 1950, private collection, New York), which combines stylized phallic and vaginal references.

Struggling for mainstream success in a male-dominated art world, Parsons did not wish her gallery to be identified exclusively as a woman's gallery. Nevertheless, she represented numerous women artists, including the openly lesbian Sonia Sekula (1918-1963). Such works as The Sun Room (1948, Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland) and Give Me (1948, private collection, New York) exemplify Sekula's imaginative version of the Abstract Expressionist style. Bright colors, decorative flourishes, and intimate scale distinguish her paintings from those of Pollock and some of the other leading male artists associated with Abstract Expressionism. Incorporating words and biomorphic shapes, Sekula's paintings of the mid-1950s, such as Read Look (1956, private collection, New York), foreshadow the development of Pop Art and, thus, exemplify the boldness and inventiveness, characteristic of the artists encouraged by Parsons.

Public Commissions in the Post-Stonewall Era

Following the Stonewall Rebellion on June 28, 1969, the Gay Liberation movement helped to create new circumstances for the production of queer art. For the first time in the western world since the ancient Greek and Roman periods, organizations developed large-scale public art commissions that explicitly celebrated same-sex love and otherwise commemorated the experiences of glbtq people.

The Gay Activists Alliance Mural

One of the first major undertakings of this type was the commission given in 1971 by the Gay Activists Alliance to John Button and Mario Dubsky, who created a forty-foot long, mixed mural at the New York Firehouse, the first headquarters of the organization.

The GAA was founded in New York City in December of 1969 by activists who wanted to work in a forceful, but non-violent, way for gay civil and social rights. Rented in 1971, the firehouse served not only as a center for political activities but also as a community meeting place. Popular weekly dances increased GAA membership, but also provoked discord as some members felt that these social events diluted the political goals of the organization. In 1974, the firehouse was burned down; it has never been determined whether homophobes or disgruntled members were responsible for this arson. The sudden destruction of the mural emphasized the tentative nature of gay communal visual expression in the early post-Stonewall years.

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