4.16 / The Museum, Part 1: The Mutable Object

An Open Letter Introducing the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art

By Chris E. Vargas May 30, 2013
Chris E. Vargas. Necessary Disguise: The Temporary Transvestite Film, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, Art Practical, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Chris E. Vargas, the executive director of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) and the 2013 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) Community Engagement Artist-in-Residence, hosted a presentation and reception for the imminent opening of MOTHA, an as-of-yet unrealized art institution in the Bay Area, at ArtPadSF on May 18, 2013. What follows is an adaptation of the presentation, previewing the background, planned programming, facilities, and fundraising for the institution.


For millennia, the patriarchy has had versions of history; for a few years in the 1970s, some white feminists had herstory; but it hasn’t been until now that transgender people have finally had a gender-neutral hirstory all their own. While the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) has been a long time in creation, it’s also been a long time overdue. Transgender people are creative and hardy folk—we’ve endured invisibility and hyper-visibility; we’ve been demonized and pathologized, ridiculed and melodramatized. We have been the subject of suspicion, medical and anthropological research, academic theorizing, metaphor, and—at worst—violence and even murder. But what’s more important is that we’ve survived in creative and ingenious ways. We’ve even thrived in this trans-phobic world to such an extent that it’s now time to preserve the legacy of our triumphs for future generations. The current state of art and historical institutions points to the undeniable importance and timeliness of MOTHA’s emergence.

Figure 2. Left: Percentage of transgender people currently, formerly, or projected to be incarcerated. Middle: Number of transgender people who identify as artists. Right: Frequency of exhibitions of art by transgender people in public art institutions.

The Emergence of MOTHA

We live in a world where every major city has an art museum that is a symbol of cultural vitality and vibrancy. Yet, even today, there are various understandings of the purpose the museum serves as an institution: Does it cater to the elite, or is it an institution for the people? Does it reflect who we are or who we want to be, and whom does we encompass—society at large or certain subsections of it? Even among such questions, it’s widely known that museums can have many flaws and complicated histories—bureaucratic messiness, interdepartmental tensions, insecurities about provincialism and reluctance to program local artists, and competing obligations to diverse local communities and to a wealthy board of directors, to name a few. And yet it seems that society has found no better alternative for preserving and displaying history and art today.

Though there are tens of thousands of contemporary art museums in the country, only a handful of those are dedicated to the art of African Americans and the African diaspora, Asian art, Jewish art and culture, or even women. There are currently no museums dedicated to genderqueer or transgender people, but our time has come. Because of this disparity—despite the known complexities associated with museums as institutions—MOTHA’s current approach, rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, is to implement the institution as the model for exhibiting and archiving our work.

Figure 3. Depiction of how MOTHA’s mere existence will radically affect the statistics depicted in Figure 2.

MOTHA Mission Statement

The Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) is dedicated to moving the history and art of transgender people to the center of public life. The preeminent institution of its kind, the museum insists on an expansive and unstable definition of transgender, one that is able to encompass all transgender and gender–non-conformed art and artists. MOTHA is committed to developing a robust exhibition and programming schedule that will enrich the transgender mythos both by exhibiting works by living artists and by honoring the hiroes and transcestors who have come before. Pending the construction of MOTHA, the museum will function as a series of autonomous off-site experiences around the San Francisco Bay Area and throughout the world.

MOTHA Programming

MOTHA plans to present a range of programs from the most cutting-edge work being made by transgender artists today and historical exhibitions mining the archives to survey shows by high-profile, internationally exhibiting artists.

MOTHA is very proud to announce the upcoming exhibition of the local interdisciplinary artist Nicki Green in her first solo museum show, It’s Never Not a Mirror. The show will feature Green’s new work, which deploys classic tropes of ceramic art as a means of infiltrating normative ideas of history and inquiring into transgender archives and the messiness of gender identity. The show’s title is inspired by a line in the Bay Area performer and playwright DaveEnd’s theatrical work, Faggots: The Musical.

MOTHA will also present exciting film and video programming, particularly to recuperate Hollywood films featuring transgender and cross-gender performances in programs such as I’d Fuck Me: Murderous Transsexuals in the Horror Genre and Necessary Disguise: The Temporary Transvestite Film. On June 23, 2013, there will be a panel discussion on these works co-presented by Art Practical and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. In counterpoint, MOTHA will also present contemporary installation and moving-image work by the artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang in a program entitled The Fist Is Still Up: New Works by Wu Tsang.

Chris E. Vargas. Nicki Green’s It’s Never Not a Mirror exhibition at Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art.

The museum will also attempt to make visible transgender history through exhibits mining the personal and public archive. For example, the historian Reina July will curate Pay It No Mind, an exhibition on the late transgender performer, activist, and co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) Marsha P. [“Pay It No Mind”] Johnson. MOTHA is also exploring an opportunity to partner with Kelly Besser of the Living Transgender Community Archives, in Los Angeles, as well as the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria.

In addition to these programs, MOTHA will make available part of its facilities for rentals at low to no cost. These rentals will be exclusively for landmark events like birthdays, “tranniversies,” and surgery-fundraising parties in order to support the community.

Chris E. Vargas. Wu Tsang’s The Fist Is Still Up: New Works by Wu Tsang exhibition at the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art.

MOTHA Facility

MOTHA will be built to preserve the legacy of the transgender community’s struggles and triumphs. Designs of the building that will house MOTHA will naturally begin with the bathrooms. For transgender people, these hyper-gendered areas have long been a point of concern. In many ways, they are the smallest yet still also the largest of our problems. For this reason, MOTHA will have gender-neutral bathrooms. Non-transgender—or cisgender—people will, of course, be obligated to use these bathrooms; however, transgender people will also be welcome to use special, hyper-gendered bathrooms during their visit. Outside the bathroom facilities, there will be informational placards to educate those who are unfamiliar with the bathroom issues that transgender people face.

The museum café will be called Compton’s in honor of the 1966 uprising in the cafeteria of the same name in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. This pre-Stonewall riot occurred also in response to the police surveillance and harassment of transgender people in semi-public spaces. In the café, we will have top-quality, affordable, queer- and transgender-supportive food. The majority of the menu choices will be raw and vegan, and the menu will indicate foods with phytohormones—plant hormones regulating growth—that support and complement one’s pharmacological and/or herbal transition. In consideration of the number of transgender people who are marginally employed, housed, and socially accepted, the café menu will always have a community item, for which customers may unashamedly pay whatever they are able.

Chris E. Vargas. Pay It No Mind: The Life & Legacy of Marsha P. Johnson exhibition at the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art, 2013. Courtesy of Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art.

Community Engagement at MOTHA

Beyond these aspects, MOTHA’s design is unplanned in order to receive input from you, the community. This is the official call for architectural designs for the MOTHA building. You can also be among the very first contributors to the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art, an institution that’s the first of its kind. Any amount above $10,000 will buy you a plaque on our donor wall, but any amount less than $10,000 can still help save a transgender life or—at the very least—a transgender art career.


CORRECTION, June 3, 2013. The article originally and erroneously stated that the installation It's All About Me, Not You by the late Greer Lankton would travel to MOTHA from its permanent location at the Mattress Factory, in Pittsburgh, to accompany artist Nicki Green's first solo museum show, It’s Never Not a Mirror. There are no current or future plans for this traveling exhibition to occur.

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