NEW ORLEANS — In 1973, the UpStairs Lounge, a bar in the French Quarter here, went up in flames one hot summer night. Thirty-one men and one woman died in what was then the largest mass killing of gay people in American history. (The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., which killed 49 people, took that grim title in 2016.) Long considered arson, the case remains unsolved; the prime suspect, who was never charged, committed suicide a year after the fire. As time passed, little attention was paid to the victims.
Now an exhibition by the artist Skylar Fein is shedding light on this macabre and overlooked episode. It is part of a new show at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories,” a collection of seven projects that, through September, puts the city’s marginalized communities at the forefront of this institution. In its two-story atrium, below the permanent collection’s European classical paintings, are L. Kasimu Harris’s photographs of young black students. And in connecting rooms there is a video footage of funeral processions, which references the Vietnamese diaspora in southern Louisiana, and Mr. Fein’s carnage-filled images and ribald tributes to gay life in the early 1970s.
“I wanted my show to say, ‘We don’t have to be afraid of this, and we can tell this story with all the sordid details that go along with it,’ ” said Mr. Fein.
A renewed interest in the UpStairs Lounge tragedy has been in the air. Over the past few years, two books, two documentaries and even a musical came out about the fire. Last month the Historic New Orleans Collection held a panel discussion on the incident, which some of the fire’s survivors attended. In 2013, the city’s then-mayor, Mitch Landrieu, declared a day of mourning for the victims. (As a point of contrast: His father, Moon Landrieu, the mayor at the time of the blaze, did not cancel his vacation.) And this year, on the attack’s 45th anniversary, a memorial service was held for the victims. It was there that New Orleans’s new mayor, LaToya Cantrell, announced the creation of an L.G.B.T. task force for the city.
The UpStairs Lounge was, by most accounts, a seedy dive, and the show’s power derives from its ability to place the viewer inside that world. Through a glowing red doorway, visitors enter a room with tacky red wallpaper that recalls the bar’s original; snapshots of victims and black-and-white prints of grisly newspaper photographs line the walls. Then viewers turn a corner into what Mr. Fein calls “a fantasia of gay culture” — images of a chest-baring Burt Reynolds and the swimmer Mark Spitz that appeared in the original club are there, as wood cutouts, as are other bawdy pictures from the time. Sexy ’70s tunes play from a speaker above.
In his new book on the tragedy, “Tinderbox,” the author Robert Fieseler calls the UpStairs Lounge a secret getaway for “an underclass of closeted gays who feared defining themselves as a minority group.” The bar was a hookup spot, and the backgrounds of its patrons were diverse — doctors, lawyers, longshoremen, hustlers, husbands, fathers. It was also a kind of gay community center: a gay Christian group met in the back room for prayer, and theatrical performers often took to the stage at night.
As Mr. Fieseler notes, 70 percent of Americans in 1973 thought adult homosexual relations were “always wrong,” according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago; and the L.G.B.T. activism that grew out of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York had barely registered in New Orleans at the time.
The men and the few women who came to the UpStairs Lounge were, in many ways, trapped by societal strictures. And the manner in which some died — trapped between barred windows and roaring flames — echoes this. The museum’s exhibition includes photos from the fire showing charred corpses squeezed beneath the bars, hanging out windows. Photos also show onlookers down in the street, astonished eyes reflecting the horror of the scene.
The fire department reported finding a can of lighter fluid at the base of the stairs. The bell for the bar was reportedly rung repeatedly; when the bartender asked a regular patron to open the door and see who was there, flames engulfed the club’s interior. Fire trucks arrived within minutes, but it was too late.
Several bodies were never identified, a fact that some people attribute to families being unable to accept the secret lives that the fire had laid bare. At the time, the governor of Louisiana did not immediately comment on the tragedy, nor did the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. The 32 deaths were front-page news of The Times-Picayune for only two days. Unlike the rallying cry for labor rights after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or for civil rights after the Birmingham church bombing, Mr. Fieseler points out that “the UpStairs Lounge fire had not been a turning point for homosexual rights in America.” It was quickly and largely forgotten.
Mr. Fein, 50, who calls himself an accidental artist, wanted to change that. He moved to New Orleans in 2005 and enrolled in college, pre-med. A few months later, Hurricane Katrina upended his plans. He needed furniture and, realizing the streets were littered with wood from the flood’s flotsam, he started building wooden signs with imagery screen-printed on top.
Around that time, he was strolling past where the UpStairs Lounge had been when he saw a sidewalk plaque referencing the tragedy and fell “down the rabbit hole”, as he put it, obsessing over the topic. “Many people are still bothered that the case wasn’t solved,” he said at his carpentry studio last month. “They’re left angry.”
Blending woodworking and historical retelling, he went deep into the history of the UpStairs Lounge fire, putting together an art show for Prospect. 1, the contemporary art biennial in New Orleans that opened in 2008. That show featured some of the same wood panel images he uses in the exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which comes, Mr. Fein noted, at a time much changed by the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. (That ruling, though, didn’t convince him to change his relationship with his partner of 14 years. “Not a fan of the institution of marriage,” he said, “but a fan of political progress.”)
Mr. Fein originally hoped that his exhibition at the museum would feature a long, narrow hallway — five feet wide — to recall the narrow stairway to the UpStairs Lounge and trigger in the visitor a claustrophobic feeling. The museum’s curators encouraged a compromise of a 10-foot wide hallway. And he was disappointed that they didn’t allow the campy ’70s music to be louder. “They said then people would barely be able to hear each other speak, they’d feel uncomfortable,” he whispered on the opening night last month as patrons strolled by, “And I said, yeah, that’s the point!”
The winding exhibition ends in a small room, where a table is stacked with books like Mr. Fieseler’s on New Orleans’s overlooked communities. Curators named it a “conversation space,” something that Katie Pfohl, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, said this show called for: “These artists portray some of the histories of the city that haven’t been largely discussed.”
On their way out of the museum, visitors pass by a large empty pedestal — a reminder that New Orleans recently, and controversially, removed many of its Confederate monuments in a moment of reckoning with its past.
“I think especially for some people in marginalized communities here, our heads are spinning with the pace of change in the past few years,” Mr. Fein said. “The museum, laudably, is trying to fill in some gaps in the history books. It may take some time. It’s a good start.”
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