Photo of the museum's East Entrance. An American flag is raised on the left flagpole while a Progress Pride flag is raised on the right.
"Progress Pride Flag," 2023 by Tim Tiebout.

Progress & Pride: Queer Representation in Art at the PMA

Lily F. Scott (she/they), Barra Fellow in American Art

Learn more about the Queer Representation in Art Learning Community (QRALC), a group of PMA staffers working to surface LGBTQ+ narratives in our collection.

Just as queer people have always been around, so too have the queer stories that are embedded within humanity’s visual culture. Simply put, queer art exists from all times and all places, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection is no exception. In thinking about and discussing LGBTQ+ (art) history, we’re acknowledging a part of history that has been historically erased, bringing marginalized stories into the mainstream. Assistant Curator of European Painting and QRALC member Tara Contractor (she/her) says, “This kind of work is important because it disproves the idea that queerness is some kind of new trend. Looking closely at art can help us to excavate and celebrate queer histories.” By shining a light on these queer artists and stories, we can better understand the past, appreciate the present, and shape the future.

Photo of a three panel screen with an image of Jesus pulling a man from the ocean. Inscription reads (center top): "Be of good cheer it is I be not afraid". Bottom left: "Thou rulest the raging of the sea". Bottom center: "And immediately Jesus stretched out his hand & caught him & said O though of little faith wherefore didst thou doubt?". Bottom right: "When the waves thereof arise thou stillest them."
“Traveling Altarpiece,” 1944 by Violet Oakley. 1975-180-1v2.

As a starting place, we define “queer art” as work that was created by a queer artist, that depicts queer themes or ideas, or that has been adopted by the queer community. It is important to note that even though “queer” is now commonly used as an umbrella term to describe various types of sexually and gender non-conforming people within the LGBTQ+ community, the term has a long and complex history and has sometimes been wielded as hate speech, like many of the words we have gone on to make our own. Our intention behind using “queer” includes respectful and compassionate recognition of this painful history, along with acknowledgment and understanding of the queer community’s and celebration of the term.

Painting of a centaur behind a naked Achilles, teaching him how to throw a spear.
“The Education of Achilles,” 1776 Giovanni Battista Cipriani. 1972-250-1.

No words are perfect, not least because it can be tricky to apply contemporary understandings of sexuality onto people who lived in the past. Ideologies about human sexuality and the terms used to describe it change over time. We cannot know how closely historic queer artists would have identified with contemporary terms, but these terms can nonetheless help us understand, celebrate, and connect with their lives and their art.

Painted portrait of a young man.

“Portrait of a Young Man, possibly Giuliano de’ Medici,”
1465-1470, by Sandro Botticelli. Cat. 50.

Were all these artists “out of the closet” and living openly queer lives? The truth is, many artists were (and are) living and making art in contexts in which sexual and gender non-conformity was considered a crime, a sickness, or both. Therefore, many people left behind few traces of that part of their lives; it is also possible that homophobic historians destroyed the parts of certain artists’ life records that pointed to same-sex relationships or gender dysphoria. We are often left to make educated guesses about artists’ identities, activities, and relationships based on few surviving traces. It is not always straightforward—or, rather, queerforward. But the goal is never to simply “out” an artist. In identifying the sexually and gender non-conforming artists represented in the collection, we can use the lens of queerness to discover whether queerness informed an artist’s work, enabling us to better appreciate and more deeply understand it.

“Barbaro after the Hunt,” 1858 by Marie-Rosalie Bonheur (also called Rosa Bonheur). W1900-1-2.

Queer art has not been historically prioritized by this or any museum, which is why I founded the Queer Representation in Art Learning Community (QRALC) in 2022. Since its inception, QRALC’s mission has been to explore, engage, and share the queer narratives threaded throughout the museum’s collection. American Art Department Assistant and QRALC member Bianca Thiruchittampalam (she/her) says, “QRALC has been a great way for us to see how our respective talents and interests can come together to work on projects for the initiative. It really shows that queer identity and issues do not have to be separated from art and vice versa.”

Oil painting of a dog chained by the neck beside a wash pail and bucket. His body slumps and the word "Barbaro" is written on the background.
Colorful abstract painting of a seated black horse with red eyes and a white mane. The suggestion of painted vines are on either side of the horse with the suggestion of water below.
“Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse),” 1915 by Marsden Hartley. 1949-18-8.
Sepia toned photograph of James Baldwin. His hands are clasped and he is draped in light colored fabric.
“James Baldwin” September 13, 1955 by Carl Van Vechten. 1965-86-2084.

Internally, we have worked on identifying and organizing data regarding the queer art in the collection. Alexa Vallejo (she/they), Cataloging and Metadata Services Specialist and chair of QRALC’s metadata and cataloguing subgroup, says that her team “explores how we can best describe queerness in our collections by assessing existing terminology, identifying gaps in our records, and communicating our needs to the people who make decisions about institutional language and how collection information will ultimately be used. By making LBGTQ+ art and artists more discoverable, we hope to demonstrate how queerness has been and should continue to be a vital part of our collection.”

“The Farnese Hercules,” 1592 by Hendrick Goltzius. 1985-52-520.

Within the museum, we’ve been offering lectures and staff-only tours, encouraging our colleagues to critically engage with LGBTQ+ art. I gave a talk on the history of depictions of Sappho, and former Suzanne Andrée Curatorial Fellow Jun Nakamura (he/him) walked us through his exhibition, Macho Men: Hypermasculinity in Dutch and American Prints, which considered homoerotic themes.

Etching of a naked statue of Hercules from behind.

Many of our efforts have been devoted to sharing information and ideas about PMA’s queer art with you, the public. We are museum workers, but we are also museum visitors, and we thought about what resources would make a difference to our own experiences. We wanted to produce something you could hold in your hands: a printed guide listing some of the queer art currently on view in the galleries. This process involved combing through the many objects currently on view, teasing out the queer narratives, collaborating with curatorial staff and living artists, and producing the rack card. Gretchen Dykstra (she/her), Studio Manager/Producer and my QRALC co-chair, says that she is “excited to be able to highlight queer artists, since this aspect of their lives may not always be obvious in their work. And by having this resource available at the admissions desks year-round, we can begin to share the breadth of queer art in the museum’s collection with visitors who might have been shy about asking or might not have thought to do so.” The guide can be picked up at any museum entrance and will be updated on a quarterly basis.

Three panel print of Kabuki actors from Japan.
“Nakamura Tomijūrō II as Toki Hime (a, right panel); Onoe Tamizō II as Sasaki Takatsuna (b, center panel); and Arashi Rikaku II as Miuranosuke (c, left panel),” 1849 by Konishi Hirosada (also called Gosōtei Hirosada). 2008-62-8a–c.

Other works of art require more context. Thus, QRALC’s online collection subgroup has been writing and publishing (new) web labels about many of the LGBTQ+ objects at the PMA, grouping them based on custom themes, such as gender ambiguity and queer ancient mythology. Bringing some of this work online also lets us highlight objects that are not currently on view and share information with those who cannot visit us in person.

Colorful painting of a store interior with figures trying on clothes.
“Spring Sale at Bendel’s,” 1921 by Florine Stettheimer. 1951-27-1.
Photo of a white statue showing the god Bacchus dressed as Autumn.

“Autumn as Bacchus,”
1770-1790, unknown artist, French. 1938-24-3.

For those who visit in person, we’ve recorded an audio tour about some of the queer art on view. Collections Interpreter Rafaela Bronson (she/her) and Head of Interpretation Rosalie Hooper (she/her) co-created the tour with an all-queer team of producers at Smartify. Rafaela says the audio tour was created to “center voices (literally) from across the museum. . . [and] include a range of staff members who don’t always get to speak directly to visitors about art.” She goes on to state that the process “really respected the collective effort and passion project that QRALC has been for so many members, and it was a way to showcase those effort. Beyond that, we felt that it would be important to center queer individuals and allies rather than the institutional PMA voice when explaining some of the nuanced, subjective, or highly personal aspects of this subject matter.” Unlike a more traditional tour, Queer(ing) Art was created by and for the queer and queer-allied community, and it was important to us to that the tour be available free-of-charge.

“Woman’s Ensemble: Bra Top and Banana Skirt,” Fall/Winter 1986 by Patrick Kelly. 2015-201-38a,b.

Available for an even larger public audience is a large intersex-inclusive Progress Pride flag flying on the museum’s East Terrace. QRALC collaborated with multiple departments—and the City of Philadelphia—to make sure that, for the first time ever, a Pride flag is flying over the iconic Rocky steps, visible for all to see and representing the museum’s commitment to celebrating and uplifting the LGBTQ+ community. It is a monumental milestone! Beyond this, the PMA hosted GALAEI’s annual Queer Prom on June 10. The event’s theme was Queer Fashion through History and it featured projections of Patrick Kelly fashion shows, drag queen performances, and, of course, dancing. Ticket proceeds fund GALAEI’s all-inclusive prom for area youth (ages 16–20), supporting and affirming the next generation of QTBIPOC Philadelphians.

Photo of a mannequin wearing a burgundy rope bra, a short skirt made of artificial bananas, and burgundy shoes.

These collective efforts set an exciting precedent for the museum. Beyond all this important work—done on top of our official workloads—QRALC brings people together. Because the group comprises LBGTQ+ community members and devoted allies, there is a palpable sense of comradery among us. Constance E. Clayton Fellow and QRALC member Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh (she/they) says, “QRALC provides . . . a loving and dedicated community with whom to collaborate and celebrate.” My fellowship at the museum ends in August, but I know that QRALC will keep this momentum, giving the PMA’s queer art and stories the spotlight they deserve. I’ve been incredibly honored and excited to co-lead this diverse group of dedicated and enthusiastic people. I am, as ever, inspired by their steadfast commitment as well as PMA’s willingness to prioritize our histories, now and in the future.

Photo of a porcelain figurine showing a nude woman being bathed by three other women. Two dogs are jumping on the nude woman, and crouching at on a rock near her.
“Diana at the Bath Figure Group,” 1790, modeled by Louis-Simon Boizot. 1945-49-1.

Lily F. Scott (she/they) is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in American Modernism, with a focus on queer art and artists. Their dissertation, Neither Then nor Now: Queer Temporalities & Interwar Portraits of Expatriate Sapphists, examines the portraiture of/by queer American women artists living in 1920s Paris. She has taught undergraduate courses at Temple and University of the Arts, and previously worked as an art educator at The Barnes Foundation. Lily is the current Barra Fellow in American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she founded the Queer Representation in Art Learning Community and curated Seeing with Empathy: The Female Gaze in American Modernism.