Remembering the Upstairs Lounge, at the border of art and public history

On June 24, 1973, thirty-two patrons of the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, died when the second-floor facility, with an unmarked emergency exit and barred windows, was consumed by flames.  The fire began in the entry stairwell, most likely set intentionally.  Here’s a good account of the incident published at the Huffington Post a couple of years ago, drawing from Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney’s 1999 book Out for Good, that discusses the indifference and hostility of local police, politicians, and clergy in the wake of the fire.

Yesterday, I visited the artist Skylar Fein’s installation “Remember the Upstairs Lounge,” which commemorates the tragic event.  One enters through a long, low hallway featuring text describing the bar, the fire, and the aftermath; graphic photographs of the devastation; and images of the victims in earlier, happier days.  The hallway then opens onto a larger second space.  Here, one finds a series of large pieces inspired by the Upstairs Lounge, the New Orleans gay scene, and early-1970s pop culture, including a grouping of lighted signs advertising bars and other amusements, oversized images of gay lust objects (Burt Reynolds, Mark Spitz), and a peep show booth, which plays a CBS news report on the fire.  (Andy Towle has additional photos.)  I’m no art critic, but I found many of these pieces compelling.

As a historian, I’m grateful that the installation expressly aims to raise public awareness of these events.  But it also prompted a couple of concerns.

First, the treatment of role of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) was rather minimal.  Members of the MCC’s New Orleans congregation gathered in the bar after services, and a number, including the pastor and the assistant pastor, died in the fire.  The MCC’s founder, Troy Perry, led the memorial service for the victims, evidence of the church’s role in providing a semblance of a national infrastructure for the gay movement of the early 1970s.  As John D’Emilio argued a few years back [pdf], narratives of LGBT history have long underemphasized religion, with problematic results.  The Upstairs Lounge story offers a good example of how drawing it out can be revealing.

Second, I wasn’t sure what to make of Fein’s inclusion in the installation of a small replica of the Farnese Hercules, enclosed in a lighted glass pedestal, described (with the aid of a post-fire photograph) as a relic rescued from the bar, and labeled with a small placard as a loan from the The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center.  Only on the way out does one learn that the statue is a replica of a replica, and the story of its provenance invented.  A letter from Collection’s president, hanging at the exit, dissociates the group from Fein’s  “fictional” use of its name and objects to his critique of the archive’s failure to record the event.

I understand Fein’s critique.  But I’m inclined to see his approach as too subtle, and to see the letter’s revelations as liable to prompt doubt among viewers about the accuracy of other details in the installation’s account of the fire.  Then again, perhaps the division of the antechamber from the main space serves well enough to demarcate “art” and “history.”  And the hostility of (some) archives to documenting and doing LGBT history is obviously an ongoing problem, worthy of comment.  So, as I said, I’m not sure what to think.  This isn’t a methodological and theoretical thicket I’ve really waded into before.  I’d be curious to hear readers’ reactions.  Is there a place for fiction in public history?  Can art and public history mix?  Should they?

“Remember the Upstairs Lounge” is open through the end of the month at 447 West 16th Street in Manhattan.  (The exhibition, incidentally, was co-organized by No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that matches vacant storefronts with art—a pretty cool idea.)

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