by Matthew S. Bajko
After months of permit delays and last-minute construction issues, the GLBT Historical Society will open the doors to its new exhibition space in the Castro this Friday, December 10.
It has been a little more than a year since the archival group closed its first foray into opening a museum in the city's LGBT neighborhood. Now it is back in a new venue with a five-year lease and two exhibits showcasing numerous items among its collection that have never been shown to the public.
Society officials warn that it is a soft opening and that the installations may not be fully complete until the official opening Thursday, January 13. Nonetheless, they are excited to be back in the heart of the city's LGBT community.
"This is a preview exhibit. The doors are open but there still might be some rough edges. Signage still needs to be put in and some electronic displays may not be fully functional, but we want to let people come in and see" the new museum, Paul Boneberg, the society's executive director, told the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday afternoon.
Several times this year the society has had to push back the opening date for the museum. Boneberg initially had hoped to be open in time for Pride in June but permit issues caused that deadline to come and go.
The society then had hoped to be open last month and has been racing to install the two new shows into the remodeled storefront at 4127 18th Street. As it became clear that the work would not be completed over the Thanksgiving holiday, the unofficial opening date was pushed back to this weekend.
"This last project has been more difficult in some ways than we hoped," acknowledged Boneberg. "We lost six months. We wanted to be open six months ago and we lost it. The permits and build out process was more difficult than we had thought."
The archival group is renting the space from Walgreens, which signed a lease for the vacant storefront in order to expand its specialty pharmacy that is next door. When neighborhood opposition to those plans derailed the project, openly gay District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty helped broker a deal to allow the national drug store chain to share the building with the historical society.
In return for city approval to use a portion of the space for its expansion, Walgreens agreed to pay for the construction costs to remodel the remaining area for use as an LGBT museum. The historical society, in turn, will pay reduced rents during the first several years of its lease. Its first payment of $2,000 was made December 1.
"Walgreens did a wonderful job for us. They absorbed all the costs and hassles with permits and made it so we were able to open," said Boneberg.
New treasures go on display
With $100,000 in city funding to help mount the new exhibits, the historical society has created two brand new shows for the museum's opening. The first is called "Great Collections from the GLBT Historical Society Archives" and was curated by Boneberg.
The show is broken into various categories of the types of material in the archives, from posters and videos to textiles and ephemera. It is meant to educate visitors why various items are collected and preserved by the society.
Included are the pantsuits worn by Phyllis Lyon and the late Del Martin when they became the first same-sex couple to marry at San Francisco City Hall in 2004 and the kitchen table and personal effects that belonged to the late Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay elected official.
The second, larger show is titled "Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating GLBT History." Founding society member Gerard Koskovich; former board member Don Romesburg; and Amy Sueyoshi, who is on academic leave as a director and associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, curated the exhibit. They took inspiration from items donated in 23 of the last 25 years since the archival group was formed.
"When we looked into the archives to see what to put in the show, we pushed ourselves to tell more interesting and less known stories," Koskovich told the B.A.R. during a sneak peek of the exhibit Tuesday, December 7. "This is all entirely new stuff. The vast majority of documents have never been show in an exhibit at the historical society."
Romesburg said they have attempted to tell "100 years of queer history in 25 years of the archive."
They have also strived to reveal hidden LGBT stories through the objects selected for the 23 different displays. A case inspired by the 1978 sales report for the now defunct Old Wives Tales, a feminist bookstore that had been on Valencia Street, led to the topic of "Consuming Queers: The GLBT Marketplace."
While shoppers can go into any number of gift shops in the Castro and buy gay merchandise, that wasn't always the case, explained Koskovich, yet people often overlook that fact.
"We are bringing forth these hidden histories," he said.
Another display centers around the papers of George Raya, one of the first fulltime gay legislative advocates in the country and the first to roam the halls of the state Capitol in Sacramento in the early 1970s. One black and white photo shows Raya, who lives in Sacramento, with then-Governor Jerry Brown, who will be sworn into a third term in the office next month.
"You know Jose Sarria was the first gay political candidate in the country. Both he and Raya were Latino men. It is not normally what we think of," said Romesburg, referring to the long held stereotype that the gay community is made up of primarily white men.
Other panels depict the lives of little known gay pioneers such as Jiro Onuma, the only known gay man to be interned in the Japanese camps during World War II, and Donald S. Lucas, whose work in the 1960s around poverty issues in the Tenderloin led to the creation of the first transgender and LGBT youth organizations.
Due to the large space they have to work with – it is 1,600 square feet – the society is able to display items it could not in its previous galleries. In one corner stands a gown worn by Baroness Eugenia Von Dieckoff (a.k.a. Henry Dieckoff) to the Grand Ducal Ball in 1983.
"It has amazing stitch work and rhinestones but we have never been able to display it because the cape is 15 to 16 feet long," said Romesburg.
Another outfit serves as the closing statement of the show: the dress that Laura Linney's character Mary Ann Singleton wears in the opening scene of the television adaptation of local author Armistead Maupin's novel Tales of the City.
"The object is meant to symbolize that both gay and straight people come here with the same hopes of coming to San Francisco and making your dreams come true," said Romesburg.
With the opening of the new exhibit space, the historical society is one step closer to achieving its dream of having a permanent home to showcase the city's LGBT treasures and forgotten stories.
"I think of this as our first real museum. The space was constructed to our specifications," said Koskovich.
The museum will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It is closed Mondays and Tuesdays; general admission costs $5.
Due to support from the Bob Ross Foundation, named after the B.A.R.'s founding publisher, the museum will be free the first Wednesday of the month throughout 2011.