MAAG founders allege homophobia

by Len Lear
Posted 7/26/23

Controversy over alleged homophobia and censorship at Mount Airy Arts Garage erupted last week with an anti-bias complaint.

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MAAG founders allege homophobia


Controversy over alleged homophobia and censorship at Mount Airy Arts Garage erupted into public view last week when one of the organization’s co-founders, Arleen Olshan, filed an anti-bias complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that MAAG board members discriminated against her due to her status as a lesbian.

MAAG Board President Patricia Smith, who heads the organization historically characterized by tolerance and diversity, denied the allegation and said the matter had been “completely blown out of proportion.”

The dispute centers on what happened to two pieces of Olshan’s art –  one black and white sketch of three nude lesbians and another of two women kissing. 

Olshan, who is 78 and has been MAAG's executive director for the past four years, hung the sketches on movable walls in front of her studio, which she maintained on the premises at MAAG. Then she went on vacation and was away for the month of April. 

When she came back, she learned that the movable walls displaying her artwork were turned to face her studio, thus blocking the work from public view. She also learned that the decision to move the walls was approved by a 5-1 vote of board members, with one abstention. 

She and her spouse, Linda Slodki, who co-founded the organization with Olshan in 2009, were furious. 

They say they heard board members say such things as “‘Who wants to see three naked women?’, ‘Even gay people don’t want something like this right in their face’, and ‘The general public goes through here with children – I don’t want my 5-year-old grandchild seeing this’.”

Olshan, who said both the board and the community have been coming to see her “lesbian feminist art” for the last 14 years, said the decision smacks of homophobia. 

“The controversy would never have been caused by a man and woman kissing,” she said.

Smith, however, said the comments were taken out of context and took vigorous issue with the claims of censorship and homophobia.

“We were discussing what people were saying who saw them outside her studio,” she said, explaining the comments that Olshan and Slodki were referencing. “I said that as a comment I overheard and shared it as an example of what was being said. 

“Arleen's work has never been censored or taken down from the gallery or gift shop, but she chose to hang her two pieces outside of her studio, which is against the rules she wrote for all studio owners,” she continued. “This is a public space and requires approval by staff. She hung it and then left town.”

Smith also took issue with comments that Olshan and Slodki made in a recent article about the matter that appeared in the Philadelphia Gay News. Smith said she was “very disturbed” that Slodki had posted the article on MAAG’s Facebook page. 

In response, MAAG defended itself in a notice it posted on the landing page of its website.

“You may have heard from the founders of MAAG, or seen posts on social media, alleging that our organization and our Board of Directors are homophobic and censorial. We assure you that these accusations are not true.

“Their communication contains misinformation, exaggerations, and several statements not based on facts. MAAG has always been intentionally inclusive and diverse. The Board values freedom of expression, diversity, and the inclusion of all voices, including the LGBTQ+ community, as do our volunteers, teachers, and staff….We will have more to say shortly. In the meantime, we assure you that MAAG will continue to provide opportunities for artists and will provide a welcoming space for all in our community.”

Larry West, a graphic designer, lifelong Mt. Airy resident, and the only board member to vote against the decision to move Olshan's drawings, said he thinks it was a mistake – although not driven by hate. 

“The board members are all lovely people. They don't have a hate bone in their bodies,” he said. “But all people make mistakes. How is removing a picture of two women kissing a protection of family values?”

Josephine Winter, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, said that the neighborhood group is working as a mediator to resolve the issue. 

“We are working with both Arleen and board president Pat Smith to arrange an open, honest discussion in the interest of full transparency and in order to preserve our sister organization, MAAG, which has been a vital, integral part of our community for the past 14 years,” she said. “We will host this mediated discussion while we await the results of the full investigation (by the state Human Relations Commission), but obviously any sort of homophobia or discrimination is counter to our values as a community.”

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