Keith Haring Mural Under Wraps
By Connor Durkin
Rendering of lobby courtesy of RSVP Architecture Studio/N+ Architecture and Design
Across the white walls of the second-floor meeting room, black lines run into each other to create an abstract gay orgy. Men jerk each other, cartoonish sperm swim, and men climb up a penis-dinosaur. The mural, “Once Upon A Time,” is one of Keith Haring’s last, but these cocks are getting covered for their own well-being.
Located in the heart of Manhattan's West Village, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, commonly known as The Center, is continuing its $9.1 million renovation. Construction includes building a new cafe, updating acoustics and lighting, and giving the building an updated, more comfortable atmosphere for its growing number of patrons from the region and worldwide.
Throughout, the Haring mural needs to be protected. Public access will be closed throughout the construction, expected to last the majority of 2014, but a new book features pictures of the mural. The book's profits will benefit the Center's renovation.
When the piece was painted in 1989, the room was the upstairs men’s bathroom and Haring had already been diagnosed with AIDS. Although he advocated safer sex, his thoughts about sex and his infliction came out in the mural, with each cartoon-like character engaging with multiple partners.
"I feel like at the time that he painted this mural, gay people were being demonized, sex was unspoken of,” said Glennda Testone, The Center’s executive director. “So for Keith to go into that bathroom and make such a bold statement [in a] place where he felt comfortable and supported and emboldened — it's just priceless."
The mural underwent a rejuvenation of its own in the last two years. Two benefactors donated funds for its restoration, and a team of experts cleaned and repaired the work inch by inch. Now, “Once Upon A Time,” remains as appealing as the day of its creation.
"I used to go over to Keith's studio to see these giant painting of hard dicks, and it always amazed me,” the poet John Giorno told Out in 1997. “I'm a poet and a gay man, and I've always chosen to include gay sexuality in my work; but to me it's been the kiss of death. To be gay that way, I always thought of as heroic, just in the most traditional way of being a hero — like an enlightened warrior, charging into battle…for sure to be killed."
The valuable mural sits inside a pricey piece of real state. Yet, the Center chose to repair and rebuild rather than sell either. "When people see the Keith Haring mural and they say, ‘Oh my god, do you know how much this is worth? Have you ever thought about selling it?’” said Testone. “And the answer is, ‘No.’ It's more than a building. I know it's prime real estate, but our community fought so hard to establish this home.”
The new renovations strive to make The Center a more "livable" and "useful" space. Airy rooms will mix with cozy areas for socializing. Updating the large spaces improves the Center’s ability to host meetings, speakers, and rentals. Long-time visitors of The Center have hoped for such an improved space, and with the passing of marriage equality in New York, many visitors are also seeking a space for weddings.
Hence, the space is evolving to match the needs of the community. “That's something that founders of The Center wanted,” Testone said. “Our community is demanding it, and we felt like we had to deliver it."