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Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

What Is Gay Art?

Milwaukee Gay Arts Center explores the meaning

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The Milwaukee Gay Arts Center (MGAC) at 703 S. Second St. is an ideal space for smaller exhibitions and performances. High-ceilinged, airy, bright and easily intimate, the room features a wall of tall windows and a raised area that makes a fine stage. Café tables and couches can be repositioned and chairs added or removed, as needed. Hardwood floors and Cream City brick walls provide excellent acoustics and a neutral background for the visual art.

When I visited recently, a piano and small stage remained in the room from an open-mic event sponsored by the social club GAMMA. The walls held prints by Madison artist James R. Reinke. Titled “Mad Man in the Mil,” the show runs through Sept. 10 and offers gently eroticized and idealized male nudes, more decorative than provocative. MGAC hangs six to eight shows per year featuring local and international artists. In October, an annual Gay Youth Art Show will feature work by students from Milwaukee Alliance School.

Paul Masterson is the center’s volunteer director. Masterson, in his 50s and with a background in visual art and antiques, founded MGAC with theater artist Don Hoffman in 2005. Hoffman soon left, and Masterson continued with the help of a small board whose current president, Alan Piotrowicz, now organizes the live performances.  The center’s name poses questions. What constitutes gay art? Aren’t such labels controlling and part of the problem? One of only a few independent LGBT art centers worldwide, MGAC proposes answers through its presentations.

The mission is to promote and present visual and performance art that is relevant to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people; but as Masterson says, you don’t have to be Chinese to eat in a Chinese restaurant. He believes there is a queer aesthetic, an LGBT culture, however fluid and individualized, built at least partly on our outsider status and the experience of persecution. These can certainly foster a critical perspective on mainstream culture while firing the imagination, sense of humor, sensitivity, perhaps even an eye for beauty. But processes of identity formation, feelings of isolation and exclusion, and struggles for human and civil rights are subjects relevant to every human being. I am grateful to have seen the sublime performance artist Tim Miller at MGAC in 2008. His exemplary work hides nothing of his experience as a gay man while broadly dissecting life in the United States.

MGAC just settled a lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee for closing its production of the musical Naked Boys Singing in 2005. It’s a genuine David and Goliath story of a tiny volunteer organization and its unpaid director, supported by the ACLU, in a five-year battle against the vice squad’s prejudicial tactics. “We didn’t give up,” Masterson said, “because of the historical treatment of the LGBT community here. That was the point.” The money will help pay rent.



Exciting New Productions

The center is the first LGBT organization to receive a grant from the Milwaukee Arts Board. The money will support the development and presentation of a new play by Wisconsin playwright Neil Haven about homeless gay youth, dryly titled Pink Champagne. A public reading of the play by important local actors inspired matching support from the Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and from PrideFest, where a second reading was given this summer. The play will open in 2011 in collaboration with Uprooted, the African-American theater company. Performances will be followed by talk-backs with relevant service organizations: Diverse and Resilient, and Pflag.

In September the center will host Thrill Me,a musical account of the Leopold and Loeb murder case. It’s the maiden production of Theatrical Tendencies, a new theater company dedicated to LGBT-relevant plays.

On Oct. 30, Goats and Monkeys, a reader’s theater composed of members of the former Milwaukee Shakespeare, will present “classical readings from the macabre” for Halloween. Shaia Fahrid of the Astor Street Dance Studio organizes MGAC belly dance parties featuring male and female dancers from near and far. These are not primarily LGBT events.

MGAC boasts a string of real achievements. Its continuing importance really depends on the use the town makes of it. Masterson welcomes ideas.