For decades, Alice Austen has held an esteemed designation as one of America’s earliest and most prolific female photographers, capturing about 8,000 documentary-styled images on film throughout her career and lifetime.
A master tennis player and the first woman on Staten Island to own a car, she was also considered a rebel who broke away from her Victorian environment.
But what has been largely ignored is her core story.
“She had a 53-year relationship with Gertrude Tate, which heavily influenced her work and of course, her life,” reported Victoria Munro, executive director of the Alice Austen House who, like many directors in the past, has worked to unearth that story for the past several years. “It has always been a known fact that she was a lesbian, but it was something that was quietly closeted and never represented here. The simple fact that we are now talking about it is tremendous. And it is honestly magical to see how people are responding.”
Designated a national site of LGBTQ history in 2017, one of only four in New York City, the historical house underwent a major overhaul this winter in preparation for the unveiling of “New Eyes on Alice Austen,” an installation which fully and truthfully exhibits Austen’s life and work.
“It is an honor to have the LGBTQ designation but it comes with a huge responsibility,” Munro said. “We need to be truthful in every aspect of our storytelling or we will be doing Alice a major disservice.”
The new exhibition, which debuted on May 22, reinterprets every single space in Clear Comfort, the waterfront home in Rosebank where Austen resided.
Previously filled with period furniture and other antiques that never belonged to Austen, the home is now represented through the photographers’ eyes. Photos Austen snapped of the home’s interior have been printed on life size sheets of Dibond aluminum, allowing guests to truly immerse themselves in her surroundings.
“We kept the Victorian aesthetic of the two period rooms and inserted media, offering slide shows of her work,” Munro explained. “We’ve also added text throughout to tell her story so you really come out with a proper notion of her life.”
Munro, an artist and curator who hails from New Zealand, moved to New York 23 years ago to pursue a career in the arts. She relocated to Staten Island with her partner, Carrie, about a decade ago and started working at the Alice Austen House in 2014 developing the site’s women’s history program on a part time basis. She was named the museum’s first lesbian executive director in 2017, the year the AAH received its LGBTQ designation.
“As a gay woman, this project is very important to me personally,” Munro said. “Interpreting Alice’s story is a responsibility I take very seriously.”
In addition to focusing on Austen’s personal relationships, the museum still highlights issues of immigration and women’s history.
“There has been very little negative feedback, some Staten Island residents question why the focus of the museum seems to have shifted so steadily to LGBTQ,” Munro revealed. “But the overall response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are visiting from all over the world and even if they have been here previously, they’re coming back to thank us for this new interpretation.”
The exhibition’s launch kicks off an assortment of events for the AAH: Starting June 6, a show of Austen’s work will be on display at the Ukrainian Institute of America in Manhattan and on June 14 a special edition Clear Comfort Pilsner will be launched by Flagship Brewery.
On June 21, Twilight Pride, an event celebrating Austen’s authentic life, will be hosted on the museum’s second anniversary as an LGBTQ designated site.
“We’ve worked extremely hard to tell her story the right way,” Munro concluded. “It’s been very fulfilling and interesting work during an interesting time in our history.”