The first time Victoria Munro visited the Alice Austen House, nearly two decades ago for a self-guided tour, she left the museum not knowing that Alice Austen was a lesbian. The museum was a charming building, set with antique furniture, but the appeal ended there. Fast forward to present day, Victoria Munro now serves as the Executive Director, the first lesbian woman to do so, ensuring that the history of Alice Austen is an accurate one, with a narrative that is representative of Austen’s work and her life.
Alice Austen was a Victorian woman born in 1866. Abandoned by her father at an early age, Austen soon moved into her grandparents’ house, which is the house we now know as the Alice Austen House located in Staten Island, New York. Austen lived in the house with several adult relatives, including her mother and uncles, allowing her the autonomy to pursue whatever interests came her way. An early photographer, she was given her first camera at the age of ten by her Uncle Oswald, and taught the chemistry of developing photographs by her Uncle Peter. Over the course of her life, Alice Austen left us with over 8,000 images of a changing and evolving landscape of New York City society.
Like many artists, Austen infused activism into her artwork. “I refer to Alice as an accidental activist,” Munro reflects. “She broke the boundaries of what was acceptable for a Victorian woman and also lived her life as a lesbian.” In addition to her photography, Austen was a founding member of the Staten Island Garden Club. “She was involved in movements that gave women much greater freedoms of dress, expression, and ways of society where women didn’t have to be chaperoned by men.”
Despite the legacy of Austen’s life, her story takes a somber turn towards the end. After living with her partner, Gertrude Tate, for over 30 years, they were eventually separated by poverty and homophobia. Austen lost most of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 and was eventually evicted from the House in 1945. Tate’s family allowed her to live with them in Brooklyn, but would not permit Austen to join. Austen was then admitted to the Staten Island Poor House. Austen’s works would later be rediscovered in 1951, when a man named Oliver Jensen found Austen’s photographs for a book he was writing, “The Revolt of the American Woman,” which captured visual imagery of women of different eras. With this rebirth of Austen’s work in the 1960s, the ownership of the Austen home (which was then privately owned) was transferred to the City of New York and the New York Parks Department.
“The dream was to open the house as a museum to represent the life and work of Austen, but also as a platform for photographers, both historic and contemporary, which is what we have today,” Munro shares. Although the Alice Austen House formally opened its doors in 1985, the original narrative represented by the museum excluded Tate’s name, and their relationship was never acknowledged. “The reason why many people don’t know about Alice Austen,” Munro explains, “is because of this lie, or closeting, of Alice. It’s essential to understanding her work and her approach.”
In 2017, through efforts from the LGBT Historic Sites Project and the National Parks Service, the original 1970 National Register of Historic Places listing was updated to include the LGBT context and significance of the House. After a major renovation, there is now a permanent exhibition to center Austen’s work, as well as her relationship with Tate. “Lesbian woman will revisit the House after the renovation,” Munro states, “and will get emotional because they are now welcomed and have an open acknowledgment of this pre-Stonewall queer history. There’s also active programming with youth, with the hope of inspiring and empowering them through photographic storytelling.”
Munro also acknowledges the importance of the LGBTQ+ community who supported and fought for this space, and shares how museums can increase access to LGBTQ+ history. “We’re in a very unique position where we’re not a Pride Center, we’re a museum. There’s access there for all ages, all people. We have this ability to educate and be inclusive in a way where we can almost be sneaky, because I can work with teenagers who aren’t out to their family, to their community, and it’s a safe space for them, and to do that through art, it’s very powerful.”
As the first lesbian Executive Director of the Alice Austen House, Munro recognizes the importance of the LGBTQ+ business community. Although the House is a nonprofit organization, Munro expressed the significance of working with all fields within LGBTQ+ business to understand trends in effectively engaging with the community. “Memberships, like those with nglccNY, are very important. It’s my hope that the membership of the chamber can find out about Alice Austen and know that they have a space that’s for them.”
The Alice Austen House provides continuous public programming and multiple physical and digital exhibitions. To learn more, visit www.aliceausten.org.
Written by Michael Venturiello, the founder of Christopher Street Tours, an LGBTQ history organization. Michael is a proud member and Ambassador of nglccNY and sits on the Media and Communications Committee.