Art for Everyone, Art Forever

BY Benjamin Ryan

October 31 2008 12:00 AM ET

Steed Taylor is a long-term survivor'not only of his own HIV infection but also of the devastation of the early AIDS crisis. Born in 1959, he turned 22 the year the first AIDS cases were reported and is one of the lucky few from his generation of gay men who didn't succumb to the disease.

A working artist from New York known for elaborate 'road tattoos,' in which he paints artwork across city streets and sidewalks, Taylor said at first he tried his best to push AIDS out of his creative consciousness. 'I wanted to get some kind of grace from the disease, so my goal was not to include it in my artwork,' he says. 'But, of course, it was seeping in.'

The HIV pandemic would become a dominant driving force behind Taylor's work in the early 1990s after he became involved with the growing arts-centered advocacy group Visual AIDS. After eventually joining the nonprofit organization's board, Taylor met and was inspired by fellow board member and celebrated artist Frank Moore, who was unapologetically incorporating the disease into his own work. Taylor eventually followed suit, and the benefits, he says, were manifold.

 'For artists, their real strength is their personal vision and their own personal experience,' he says. 'I was confronted with so much death at such an early age. I think the way for me to deal with it at the time was to think that I should try to avoid it. I guess the positive thing was realizing that I could confront it'maybe, you could say, see the poetry in it.'

Saved for Posterity
Sharing that 'poetry' with the public is part of the ongoing mission of Visual AIDS, founded in 1988, which maintains a vast image archive of more than 13,000 works by some 320 artists who are living with HIV and from the estates of 90 artists who have died'most notably, works by former board member Moore, for whom the archive was named following his death in 2002, and those of renowned pop artist Keith Haring, who died in 1990.

The organization has two goals'chronicling the impact of AIDS on the world's artists and serving as a uniquely visual advocacy group in the ongoing fight against the disease. To that end, Visual AIDS has spearheaded two of the most successful and widely adopted awareness initiatives in the history of the pandemic: the creation in 1991 of the red ribbon (in collaboration with the theatrical organization Broadway Cares) and the 1989 founding of the annual 'Day Without Art,' which imagined a dystopian future in which AIDS has irreparably devastated the already hard-hit arts community, focusing attention on the tragic loss of art and artists by shrouding public artworks and shuttering museums for the day. The event, held in conjunction with World AIDS Day each December 1, has over the past decade evolved into the 'Day With(out) Art,' celebrating art and its power to educate and inform the world about HIV.

While the AIDS awareness ribbon and the 'Day With(out) Art' have become internationally recognized symbols in the global AIDS fight, most of the work and advocacy that Visual AIDS does today is conducted on a smaller scale, and usually in a much less mainstream manner, says executive director Amy Sadao. And as a decidedly avant-garde organization, Visual AIDS gets by on a shoestring budget compared to other HIV-focused nonprofits.

With an annual budget of $250,000, which Sadao proudly describes as a triumph over the fiscal crisis suffered in the post'9/11 downturn, Visual AIDS supports two full-time employees in its office space in Manhattan's Chelsea arts district. The group notably lacks the resources to digitally scan its massive collection of slides, which are housed in vintage metal filing cabinets that look like they may have been culled from the set of the 1950s TV series Dragnet.

The agency's focus may be more narrow, but in fact, that's just the way the organization and its supporters like it, preferring to operate cozily within the overlapping artistic and activist communities. 'Nothing against our friends in AIDS service organizations, but we most definitely are not a social service organization,' says Sadao, who holds a master's degree in ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley. 'We are most definitely a contemporary arts organization working to produce museum-quality'and by that I mean the highest quality'contemporary and folk art projects. The work itself is not necessarily social messaging; it's art.'

A recent New York City gallery exhibit underscores Sadao's point. Although the show featured works from the estates of three artists who died of AIDS-related complications and two living HIV-negative AIDS activists, none of the displayed pieces addressed the disease explicitly. Rather, they aimed to spark a more broad-based dialogue that included many intellectual topics'HIV included.

'I wasn't particularly interested in making an exhibition that was about AIDS per se,' says guest curator Dean Daderko, 'but rather about the kind of practices and careers of these artists.'

A Focused Vision
The agency's messaging is instead accomplished primarily through underground means, including through the production of what the organization calls broadsides'a series of posters, postcards, lapel pins, and other collectible objects emblazoned with unconventional HIV prevention, awareness, and education messages by artists from around the world. Each piece is produced by the thousands and sent out free of charge to a network of student groups, AIDS service organizations, art educators and institutions, and gay pride events.

The most recent broadsides take a humorously funky approach to HIV prevention. Artist Michael Mitchell puns that 'Rubbers are fun!' on a yellow balloon, while artist Amy Jean Porter's similarly shaded tote depicts two copulating skunks and wags an anthropomorphic finger with its message 'Don't be a skunk. Be safer with sex.'

The broadsides approach may be unconventional, but Sadao makes no apologies for running an AIDS organization that is far divorced from the models of scientific evidence that govern most approaches to direct HIV prevention.

'When you pick something as ephemeral, open-ended, complex, rich, and deep as contemporary art, it's not black-and-white,' she says. 'It's not 'Here's how you save a life,' 'Here's how we cure AIDS,' 'Here's how we stop discrimination against people who are HIV-positive,' 'Here's how we memorialize the great lives that have been lost and continue to be lost to this plague.' It's not that clear'because it's culture and it's art.'

Board member Pavel Zoubok, a local gallery owner, adds, 'I think when you're very literal around a certain issue, it's also very easy to be marginalized as a result.'

In addition to occasional gallery shows in the New York City area (there are plans to expand them to the West Coast in the future), Visual AIDS promotes a Web gallery online, where invited guest curators create digital exhibitions with images selected from the group's archive or elsewhere.

In the past few years the organization has also published glossy art books featuring the works of the late Robert Blanchon as well as a collection of pieces from artists reflecting on the devastating effect of cytomegalovirus, a herpesvirus infection that causes destruction to the retina and can lead to blindness. The organization also hosted a one-day conference this past summer in New York City titled AIDS/ART/WORK, in which panelists and some 120 guests 'hashed it out,' as Sadao puts it, over the intersecting ambitions of artistic expression and AIDS activism. A similar conference, to be held in Australia, is in the works.

Increasing Visibility
The most well-known Visual AIDS event, aside from the 'Day With(out) Art,' is Postcards From the Edge, an annual benefit where patrons can buy original postcard-size artwork from artists whose identity is concealed until their piece is purchased. The 2007 event drew 1,600 participating artists of varying degrees of fame, making for a lot of art bargains as well as great exposure for lesser-known artists.

George Towne, who is struggling both to eke out a living as an artist and with what he describes as feelings of guilt and shame over having recently seroconverted, says participating in the postcards event provides a real boost for him.

'They'll hold the postcard show at a huge gallery, and to be able to say that I showed at the James Cohan Gallery, well, it's a nice thing,' says Towne, whose haunting oil portraits of gay men reflect his own sense of personal loss and fragility but also of inner strength and hope.

Towne, the grateful beneficiary of two $300 grants for art supplies from Visual AIDS, says in addition to the exposure provided by Postcards From the Edge, he enjoys the sense of camaraderie with other artists he meets through volunteer work for the organization. 'I'll be in the Visual AIDS office, helping with a mailing or something, and famous artists will be dropping by. I get to meet people I've only read about,' he says. 'And I get to realize that the art world is not as big and scary as it might seem. There is community.'

That sense of community is one of the reasons Steed Taylor is such a staunch supporter of Visual AIDS'and why he continues to see a bright future for the group. 'It's almost like they've been to battle,' he reflects. 'They're an organization that was formed through a war on AIDS'and they've survived, they've come through it, and their spirits are helping other people who are in the battle right now.'

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