Harter Art and Gay Carnival History

The John Burton Harter Foundation has helped make possible two initiatives showcasing the extraordinary art and history of gay carnival.

The Louisiana State Museum exhibition Grand Illusions: The History and Artistry of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, curated by Wayne Phillips and Howard Philips Smith, showcases lavish costumes, commemorative posters, rare photographs, and one-of-a-kind artifacts, as well as videos of clandestine balls.

These works tell the story of gay carnival growing out of traditional Mardi Gras celebrations and organizing in social clubs or krewes. Gay krewes began forming in the late 1950s with balls that mimicked, mocked, and payed homage to presentations of royalty. They occurred in secret for men dressing in drag to avoid harassment and imprisonment for this illegal activity at the time.

Also, Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, edited by Smith, complements the exhibit, reproduces its ephemera, and highlights artist biographies. This first complete academic study gives context to gay carnival evolving alongside mainstream Mardi Gras and the history of theater, dance, art, and gay life.

Published by University Press of Mississippi, this colorful book features “Mardi Gras in the Eighties,” a poster by J. B. Harter with his painting titled “Harlequin.”

Grand Illusions runs June 6, 2019 – December 31, 2020, at the Louisiana State Museum in The Presybtère. Its opening coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

Unveiling the Muse is available through your local independent bookseller and Amazon here.