Lesbian files anti-bias complaint against Mt. Airy arts center

File Folders
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Longtime community advocate Arleen Olshan recently filed an anti-bias complaint with the state Human Relations Commission, alleging Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) discriminated against her due to her status as a lesbian by censoring her artwork and committing other wrongdoing.

MAAG is a nonprofit center for the arts that Olshan co-founded 14 years ago. It’s located on Germantown Avenue between West Mt. Pleasant Avenue and West Sedgwick Street in Mt. Airy. 

Olshan served as its executive director from 2019 to this month, when she allegedly was forced out of the position.

Olshan had an artist’s studio at MAAG. In April, two pieces of Olshan’s artwork — a black and white sketch of three nude lesbians and a similar sketch of two women kissing — were displayed on movable walls in front of Olshan’s studio. No overt sexuality was displayed and no genitalia were drawn. Similar depictions hang in numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Olshan, 78, is dealing with a serious health challenge. She took a vacation in April to help with her recovery. Upon her return, she learned the movable walls displaying her artwork were turned to face her studio, thus blocking her artwork from public view. This action was approved by three board members without asking Olshan’s permission to do so. MAAG has a total of eight board members. 

Olshan said she was easily reachable during her vacation, though no one from MAAG notified her of their plans to censor her artwork, according to documents accompanying Olshan’s PHRC complaint.

MAAG Board President Patricia Smith acknowledged that no one representing MAAG contacted Olshan prior to turning the walls around. 

“We probably should have,” Smith told PGN. “We didn’t.”

But Smith said the three board members who agreed to turn the walls around not only had their own concerns — they were also responding to visitors’ complaints.

From May 7 to June 10, Olshan continually wrote to MAAG board members, questioning who decided to have her artwork censored. No board member responded, even though they discussed the matter at two board meetings, without Olshan being invited, according to Olshan’s PHRC complaint.

Since last year, Olshan has been concerned about alleged homophobia on the part of some board members, including Smith. In December 2022, Smith allegedly told Olshan she wouldn’t be able to teach children’s art classes at MAAG, according to PHRC documents.

“After 14 years of teaching MAAG art projects and murals at Emlen Elementary, Houston Elementary School, and other locations, this comes as a shock to me,” Olshan wrote. “[Smith] said that parents with children are complaining that they are being asked to wear masks. It comes as a shock and feels like she wants to just keep me away from children.”

Olshan added: “Seeing as I have been leading MAAG art projects in the schools for the last 14 years, it felt like she was insinuating ‘grooming.’”

For her part, Smith said four families didn’t want Olshan teaching their children because she allegedly was rude to them and raised her voice when asking them to wear masks in MAAG’s gift shop. (The masks were supplied by MAAG.)

Smith also denied she was insinuating grooming when raising the subject with Olshan. 

“Of course not,” Smith told PGN.

Smith acknowledged she was one of the three board members who agreed to turn the movable walls around. She didn’t know how long Olshan’s artwork had been displayed before the walls were turned around.

Arleen Olshan holds one of her drawings she alleges was censored by the Mt. Airy Art Garage Board. The drawing depicts two women in bed together.
Arleen Olshan holds one of her drawings she alleges was censored by the Mt. Airy Art Garage Board.

After Olshan made numerous requests for a dialogue, she was invited to attend a special June 24 board meeting to discuss her censorship concerns. At the meeting, a few board members expressed a belief that Olshan’s artwork was inappropriate for children to see.

Two board members expressed support for Olshan at the June 24 meeting, according to PHRC documents.

At the conclusion of the June 24 meeting, Olshan made several requests, including: a public, written apology from the board; revision of the organization’s bylaws to ensure there’s no censorship or alteration of MAAG exhibitions; the placement of a sign at the entrance of MAAG’s art gallery reiterating a commitment to freedom of expression for artists; and training of all volunteers to properly respond to any request for censorship of artwork displayed anywhere at MAAG.

In a July 3 letter to Olshan, Smith indicated the only request of Olshan that would be honored would be a “warning” sign at the entrance to the art gallery. Olshan, however, said she never characterized her request as a “warning” sign, according to PHRC documents.

Smith told PGN all but one board member approved the letter, which she signed after input from other board members.

The July 3 letter also denied that any homophobia or censorship was imposed upon Olshan. 

“When you hung your artwork of nude figures on the outside wall, three Board members felt they were not appropriate for children to see in a commonly used space,” the letter states.

“[T]here are rules shared by all occupants of studios that you must also share,” the July 3 letter added. 

The letter cited a provision within MAAG’s contract with studio occupants stating: “Sponsor maintains the right to remove any alterations outside the Artist’s studio.”

However, Olshan has photos showing at least six photographs snapped by Smith that hang outside Smith’s studio, according to PHRC documents.

At the end of the letter, Smith, on behalf of the board, offered a few concessions to Olshan. “As an honor to your legacy, we would like to offer to you to show your figure drawings in the upcoming ‘Drawings from Live Models’ exhibition in the Gallery with multiple pieces at no cost to you.”

Smith, on behalf of the board, also offered to let Olshan curate the 2024 International Women’s Day exhibition in the Gallery. Finally, Smith said the board would like to name a space at MAAG to permanently honor Olshan as its co-founder, if Olshan gives her permission, according to the letter.

When questioned by PGN, Smith said the board would be willing to erect a plaque at MAAG honoring both Olshan and her wife Linda Slodki, who also co-founded MAAG.

Olshan was disappointed with the board’s response. 

“MAAG no longer feels safe for me as a lesbian,” Olshan wrote. “The Board has set up an environment where I no longer feel safe nor appreciated.”

Regarding the claim that three board members wanted her artwork censored, Olshan wrote: “Three members of the Board, per the bylaws, is not a quorum for censorship. I was reachable and no one spoke to me even though I continued to communicate with the entire board during my vacation. On my return, no one responded to my query about who turned my work around. This went on for weeks.”

Olshan also alleged that outside of her presence, “There has been an ongoing argument about my work — citing children and family values. My work is also the only artwork focused on feminist and lesbian themes. Why now? No one’s work has ever been censored at MAAG.”

Moreover, in response to the alleged contract with studio occupants cited in the July 3 letter, Olshan said she never signed such a contract, according to her PHRC complaint.

For her part, Smith said she respects Olshan’s contributions. 

“I recognize that [Olshan] has been an activist in the movement for decades,” Smith told PGN. “I’ve always known that. We honor her efforts in that regard. We’re not trying to take any of that away from her. But we are trying to create a community arts center that includes everyone. That’s where we’ve run into some issues. Having said that, her artwork has never been in dispute in its proper locations. Her artwork has been in the gift shop, which is representative of the artist members of MAAG, with no issues. Her artwork has been in gallery shows when she submits it for particular shows. It’s been accepted by the Curating Committee, without any problems. We feel badly that she feels so hurt by this. The board would like for her to accept the honors she deserves as a co-founder of this organization.”

On July 9, Olshan signed a PHRC complaint against MAAG, and it was subsequently filed with PHRC. Additional information about the status of Olshan’s complaint was unavailable at presstime.

Olshan’s complaint alleges harassment, wrongful pressure to leave MAAG, and random censorship of her artwork. 

“My responsibilities as executive director at MAAG have been usurped by the Board with no notification,” Olshan wrote in the complaint. “I no longer feel this is a safe space for LGBTQ+ artists. The ongoing attacks against me citing safety of children and family values are homophobic code words. I have begun moving out of my studio as of July 3, 2023.”

Olshan had no comment for this story.

Newsletter Sign-up