Gay photographer and San Francisco LGBTQ historical society butt heads

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 4, 2023
Share this Post:
Gay photographer Mark Chester's stands in front of his take on Grant Wood's classic painting "American Gothic," now on exhibit at the de Young Museum that features two gay men of color in whiteface. Photo: Courtesy Mark Chester
Gay photographer Mark Chester's stands in front of his take on Grant Wood's classic painting "American Gothic," now on exhibit at the de Young Museum that features two gay men of color in whiteface. Photo: Courtesy Mark Chester

A longtime gay photographer said the GLBT Historical Society is not forthcoming with him about why it no longer wants to be his fiscal sponsor. He surmises it could be because a photo he made features two gay men of color wearing whiteface in a parody of a classic painting.

Mark Chester is currently in his third fiscal sponsorship agreement with the society, which ends December 31. He started it with money left over from his second project with the society, "Street Sex Photos."

The fiscal sponsorship allowed Chester to make expenditures for his project regarding "queer men of color in photographic explorations about race," but not to exceed $10,000, according to a copy of the contract dated June 6, 2022 provided to the Bay Area Reporter. Chester stated therein that he'd kept $2,000 from the previous project to use for this one.

To defray for the sponsor's costs, 10% of funds paid to the project (or 13% of online proceeds) were to go to the historical society, the sponsorship agreement states. Chester told the B.A.R. getting another fiscal sponsor for the project would mean he'd have to give another chunk of change to whoever that sponsor is.

Chester said if he were to go to another fiscal sponsor they'd have to take his account from the historical society and they would take their own percentage off the top.

"It would be considered a new transfer for them, even though the money was already at the historical society," Chester said. "Every institution gets their cut."

Although the end date was written into the contract for legal purposes as December 2023, Chester said those then in charge at the society assured him it would get renewed for as long as it took to complete the project.

"They said 'don't worry; we understand, you'll have till it's completed,'" Chester said. "They said it would be automatically renewed — that the end date was just bookkeeping."

With that understanding, Chester began his third project — "Racial Portraits." And in the interim, the society experienced a change of leadership, with Roberto Ordeñana, a gay man, becoming its new executive director in fall 2022.

In June, Chester wrote Ordeñana asking if the two could meet, which they did at a Castro-area coffee shop, Chester said.

"To everything the answer was no," Chester said, saying that Ordeñana didn't want to hold an event for his street sex book, citing COVID concerns. But things became even more tense when Ordeñana started flipping through the "Racial Portraits" compilation.

"I have a photo that's kind of a take off 'American Gothic,'" Chester said, referring to the famous 1930 painting by Grant Wood. "When he [Ordeñana] got to that, it was obvious he was disgusted, and immediately afterward closed the book and said, 'by the way we're not going to renew your fiscal sponsorship.'"

The B.A.R. reached out to Ordeñana, a former member of the city's arts commission, to ask about Chester's allegations.

"We have served as the fiscal sponsor for Mark Chester's project since July 2020 and have already extended our agreement to continue serving until 12/31/23," Ordeñana stated in an email to the B.A.R. "Sponsored projects take varying degrees of resources to administer, and as already shared with Mark, due to limited staffing, we are unable to provide fiscal sponsorship to this project after our agreed-upon end date."

An email from Ordeñana to Chester, who provided it to the B.A.R., shows that on June 9, Ordeñana asked Chester why he wanted to end the sponsorship early. Chester told the B.A.R. October 3 he'd asked Ordeñana to stop accepting donations at their meeting.

"I never asked that the fiscal sponsorship be ended," Chester asserts. "I still hope pressure from the community will change their minds."

In a follow up email to Chester, sent in September after the B.A.R. contacted Ordeñana, he characterized Chester's claims repeated to him by the B.A.R. as inaccurate.

"In [the B.A.R.] email, he lists some significant inaccuracies about why the Historical Society cannot renew our contract after its expiration on December 31, 2023," Ordeñana wrote. "As we discussed in our meeting on June 8th and sent to you in a follow-up email on June 9th, the pandemic impacted our operational budget, necessitating us to make difficult decisions and realign resources. Unfortunately, we do not have the administrative bandwidth to service your fiscal sponsorship in the years ahead. As I told you then, we pride ourselves in our ability to offer efficient and reliable support to our partners and fully intend to serve the duration of your fiscal sponsorship agreement, should that remain your desired direction, until its conclusion at the end of the year."

Controversial photo

Chester's depiction of the Wood painting features two men — LaMont Ridgell, who is Black and gay, and Justin P. Lopez, who is multiracial Filipino and Chileno and gay — wearing whiteface. Ridgell is holding a broom instead of a pitchfork, as in the original.

Ridgell said he and Chester have worked together in the past.

"At face value, it's a parody of 'American Gothic.' Almost anyone of a certain generational age is familiar with the original painting," Ridgell said. "If you look a little deeper, it's also reminiscent of back in the day people of color — Justin and myself — were hired to clean up after folks. We were the help, so to speak. We made it a tad more dangerous by putting on whiteface."

Ridgell said, "the picture could have scared the historical society" because "it leads to the whole discussion about blackface, so maybe they were offended or afraid about that."

Ordeñana did not address the content of the "American Gothic" parody when asked.

Lopez said, "I didn't know how people would react" but that "a lot of people were impressed and liked the piece."

Among those is Timothy Anglin Burgard, the curator-in-charge of American art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The picture is being displayed at the de Young Museum until January.

"Mark Chester's photograph is one of two artworks in the de Young Open exhibition that appropriate and reinterpret Grant Wood's iconic painting 'American Gothic' (1930), which portrays a Midwestern farmer and his daughter," Burgard stated in an email to the B.A.R. "Like Gordon Parks' earlier photograph titled 'American Gothic' (1942), which depicts a cleaning woman holding a broom and a mop, Chester's image also seeks to challenge historical conceptions of race, identity, representation, and art."

Lopez told the B.A.R., "I'm surprised to be able to say I'm on a wall in the de Young," adding that he "didn't expect it to have the impact it has had now."

Chester believes that it was this portrait that led to the historical society's decision.

"[Ordeñana] might have been offended by someone who passes for white working on race and gender and sexuality," Chester said, adding that his background is Jewish.

As of October 3, he has not received a formal explanation or written notice regarding his sponsorship renewal.

"It should have been him writing me a letter," Chester said of Ordeñana.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.