October 6, 2017

Interpreting LGBTQ History at the Alice Austen House

We at the Alice Austen House (“Clear Comfort”), a proud member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, aim to be a current and relevant museum rooted in history. The museum represents the life and work of Alice Austen (1866–1952), an early American photographer and a bold and daring woman ahead of her time. Growing up as a woman of privilege, Alice Austen participated in society even as she rejected and mocked certain Victorian restrictions on women, including gender roles and domestic expectations. Across more than 7,000 photographs, she captured personal takes on Victorian life on Staten Island, staging elaborate group portraits of her friends, as well as a changing New York City at the turn of the 20th century. From her photographs—which include gender-bending images and scenes of immigrant and working-class life on the streets of Manhattan—to her 50-year same-sex relationship, Austen’s work and life provide us with many opportunities to create programming that is relevant to contemporary issues surrounding personal identity.

Alice Austen, [Self Portrait with Bicycle], 1897. | Credit: Image Courtesy of Alice Austen House

The museum is situated on the waterfront of Staten Island near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with panoramic views of New York Harbor. This historic viewshed is important, as Austen witnessed significant historic moments and events from her home—including the construction of the Statue of Liberty, the opening of Ellis Island to waves of immigration, the return of World War I soldiers—and captured many of them in her photographs Her darkroom closet is preserved in the home and on view to the public.

Floto + Warner, Clear Comfort | Credit: 2015 © Floto+Warner

The Alice Austen House believes that presenting dynamic programs and exhibitions in Austen’s family home is the best way to honor her legacy. The Friends of Alice Austen House group that formed in the 1960s and ’70s to preserve the historic house—and opened it as a public museum in 1986—understood that the house could be used not only to interpret Austen’s life and photographs but also to show the work of contemporary photographers. The museum curates two to three exhibitions annually and hosts intimate artist talks, which intentionally reference important themes in Alice Austen’s life and work. In 2016 the museum established the Staten Island Triennial of Photography, issuing an open call to photographers living or working on Staten Island in order to showcase contemporary local work.

A Site of LGBTQ History

In June 2017 the Alice Austen House, where Austen and her life partner, Gertrude Tate, lived together for nearly 30 years, marked its national designation as a site of LGBTQ history. The museum’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places was amended to include LGBTQ history as an area of significance. This was an achievement of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, funded through a grant from the New York State Historic Preservation Office and made possible by the National Park Service. Paving the way for this designation was the decision by our museum’s board and staff in 2014 to expand our mission to include “explor[ing] personal identity” in order to emphasize LGBTQ interpretation and other programming that touches upon cultural and social issues. A penny photograph of Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate that was taken circa 1905 was added the following year to the wall of photographs that greet visitors when they enter the museum. On the day of the 2017 designation, a new introductory text panel was installed at the entrance to the museum that acknowledges Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate’s loving and devoted partnership of close to 50 years—reinserting Tate as a central figure in the narrative of Alice Austen’s life and incorporating her more fully into the physical space of the house.

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate, Pickards Penny Photo Studio, Stapleton Staten Island, c. 1905. | Credit: Courtesy of Alice Austen House

Integrating Austen and Tate’s story into the museum’s core interpretation bridges a gap between the institutional narrative of Austen’s story and the truth that the LGBTQ community has long known about her life. While, in some ways, we are catching up, the Austen House is at the forefront of LGBTQ interpretation at historic sites. There are still few places that venture to address the LGBTQ stories of historical figures. LGBTQ history remains underrepresented in American history, but these stories need to be told. We hope to be a model for other institutions who may want to undertake a similar reinterpretation.

With generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum has engaged scholars from relevant fields to help contextualize Alice Austen in New York City history, women’s history, immigration history, LGBTQ history, and photographic history. Over the next two years, the permanent installation in the museum will be updated with the help of a professional exhibition designer. We will use high-resolution photos and update the text interpretation based on scholarly input. We hope to be able to more prominently display Alice’s work within the rooms of the house to bring her stories and photography to the forefront visually, to highlight her artistic and historic significance.

We also want to learn much more about Gertrude Tate. We know that at the time of Austen and Tate’s meeting in 1899, Tate was a kindergarten and dance teacher in Brooklyn who provided the sole financial support for her mother and her sister. After Tate moved in with Austen at Clear Comfort, in 1917, it was her entrepreneurial instincts—offering dance and etiquette lessons, running a tea room, and in later years opening a restaurant on the lawn of Clear Comfort—that kept the two women afloat after the stock market crash of 1929. Even after financial difficulties ultimately forced them to separate at the end of their lives, Austen and Tate remained committed to one another and Tate became a fierce advocate for the protection of Alice Austen’s photographic legacy.

Richard O’Cannon, Alice Austen seated with Gertrude Tate, September 1944. | Credit: Courtesy of Alice Austen House.

Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate’s determination to build a life together and the obstacles they overcame to do so are meaningful as the LGBTQ community still strives for equality We feel an enormous responsibility to tell their story, and hope to weave artifacts and images of their life together throughout the new permanent installation. We will be thrilled to open this new display and provide this new experience of the museum in mid-2019.

Janice Monger is the former executive director of the Alice Austen House. Denise Rompilla is manager of collections and interpretation Initiatives at the Alice Austen House.

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By: Janice Monger and Denise Rompilla

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