Philip Yenawine’s Transformative Teaching

This article is part of Hyperallergics 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

For American art historian Philip Yenawine and his countless students, education is a lodestar. After working in museums across the United States for two decades, he began working as director of education at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1983, where he channeled his role into its own form of HIV/AIDS awareness activism, spearheaded a night of AIDS epidemic awareness at the museum as a precursor to Visual Aids’s first annual Day Without Art, and developed Visual Thinking Strategies to transform visitors’ relationships to art. Soon realizing this method could be applied outside the museum, he began teaching in grade school and even medical school classrooms, penning multiple books on the subject and bringing his keen love of teaching and curation to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and many others. Now in his 80s, Yenawine was honored earlier this month at the Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards for his decades-long work, alongside photographer Lola Flash and drag artist Brian Butterick. He answered a few questions over email about being queer in a hostile art world, the meaning of Pride Month, and honoring artists who paved the way for future generations.

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H: What are you working on now?

Philip Yenawine: At almost 82, merely living has become something of a project. I’m one of the luckiest people I know in that I have a wonderful, generous, loving younger husband whose support is steadfast as aging seems to take certain abilities away while adding a few aches and pains to the mix. But I continue to write and teach mostly about what can be seen as my life’s work: trying to make the experience of art available to more people in ways that really matter. I co-created something called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) in the ’90s and still help with its dissemination in museums, schools, businesses, and medicine.

H: How, if at all, does your identity factor into your work?

PY: I attribute what creativity I have to being gay. The sense that I was different from others from an early age sometimes made me lonely and ashamed, but most of the time gave me free rein to do things other boys didn’t.

During my decade as director of education at MoMA in New York, the museum turned out to be a good platform for some of the gentler forms of activism — memorials, wearing red ribbons, testifying at hearings — though such activity was not loved by the administration. I acted as expert witness in David Wojnarowicz’s suit against the American Family Foundation because of my museum credentials, one of the great honors of my life.

H: When did you come out?

PY: Even as a young boy, I knew I was intrigued by boys’ anatomies. In 1959 as a 17-year-old, I realized I didn’t just want to play with penises but also to kiss a boy, and I knew I had crossed a line: I fit a category I saw defined in one of the books my father hid in the attic. Queer life was still mostly invisible when I was young, Liberace notwithstanding, but the useful side of invisibility was that my only no-no was acting “like a girl.” I did know, however, that I shouldn’t admit that while I had lot of girl friends, I didn’t really want a girlfriend.

That said, I grew up thinking that heterosexual marriage was the only way to have a loving relationship. I tried cis marriage twice but around the time I turned 30, I realized that trying to be straight was not healthy. By this time, I had two children who remain very much in my life. The damage done to them had little to do with my being gay per se but was the result of not being around enough. That said, my part-time parent status allowed me to sequester casual dating when the kids were little. In time, many of my gay friends became their friends. And the 1970s proved there were a lot of men looking for fun. And then there was HIV/AIDS.

H: Has the art world felt open to you? Have you found it accepting?

PY: Queer is cool today, even trendy, but during the first 50 years of my life, that was not the case. The art world had plenty of closets. Even during the supposedly radical 1960s and ’70s, while it was no secret that many artists, curators, and other art world folk were gay, it was more tolerated than accepted. I didn’t advertise it when applying for jobs. HIV/AIDS forced it to become a topic of conversation but did little to banish the stigma. Queer identity, presence, art, and theory became topics of conversation over the tumultuous ’80s alongside the valuing of other previously marginalized subjects, such as the fact that women and people of color also made art. While it was more or less safe to be whatever within the art world bubble, artists like David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and feminist performance artist Karen Finley were vilified when outsiders caught sight of work that included their forbidden identities. Art institutions chilled toward them in response.

Over the decades since then, we’ve seen a shift in the art world along with society at large. It’s not to say it’s easy to be other than male, White, and cisgender either in or out of the art world, it’s just incomparably better than it was a few decades back.

H: Who are your mentors? Did you have queer mentors?

PY: I had none, really. I knew people I thought were gay, but they were closeted, and I didn’t like the lessons they taught. I think my father was among them; his response to my leaving a marriage and coming out was, “How dare you be gay? You have a son.” Meanwhile, my father-in-law said, “Why did you tell Emily? She doesn’t need to know.”

The only adult who helped me understand how to be a realized gay person was a family friend. Closeted himself, he was no help in that arena, but he taught me aesthetics and appreciation of art and design, the next best thing to sexuality education. Most people my age invented their gay identities bit by bit over time emboldened by the likes of James Baldwin, Derek Jarman, John Cage, and Larry Kramer, mentors at a distance.

H: Who would you consider some of your peers or cohort in the field?

PY: A huge number of my gay peers died during the AIDS epidemic. Many artists continue to inspire me, including performance artist John Kelly, filmmaker Todd Hayes, designer Gai Gherardi, action architect Elizabeth Streb, and journalist Laura Flanders, who are alive, well, and productive.

H: Do you feel connected to upcoming queer artists and artwork?

PY: I sometimes feel that younger queer artists don’t really know what it was like before. Some don’t appreciate the work their ancestors did to make the world safer for the work they do and the lives they lead. An exception is Sacha Yanow, whose work mines the past seeking some clarity about now. Catherine Gund, Demian DinéYazhi’, and Viet Le also build on the past and bring many new insights, and I feel very connected to the likes of them. I remain an advisor to Art Matters Foundation and by way of its adventurous funding program get to see a lot of new work, much of it produced by queer artists of color.

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

PY: I love the way that it’s become ubiquitous. The adoption of the rainbow flag and, now, its adaptation to include trans people was a great thing. The fact that it might annoy some people is excellent news. So much better than silence.

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