AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism
at the Museum of the City of New York
Groundbreaking Exhibition Sheds New Light on
Response to HIV/AIDS Crisis in NYC Examines How Artists and Activists Reshaped
Ideas of Family and Domestic Life
Susan Kuklin, “Kachin and Michael in Michael’s Apartment,” 1987. © Susan Kuklin.
ON VIEW: Tuesday, May 23 – Sunday, October 2
The Museum of the City of New York presents AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism, a compelling examination of how artists and activists have expanded the idea of caretaking and family while navigating the political stakes of domestic life in the face of the HIV/AIDS crisis from the early 1980s to the present. From the earliest diagnoses, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has spurred New Yorkers to create new forms of social support, identify new legal battles, and express themselves in new artistic terrain. The exhibition places paintings, photography, and film alongside archival objects from activist groups and support programs to uncover the private stories of HIV and AIDS and reconsider caretaking, community building, and making art as acts of resistance.
“AIDS at Home humanizes a dark chapter in the city’s history by shedding light on the emotional bonds forged in times of crisis, as well as the activist and creative responses born of necessity,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “New York has always demonstrated resiliency in the face of adversity and this exhibition puts that defining characteristic on display in deeply personal terms.”
Scientists first identified AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) in 1981 among a group of young gay men in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, who were all diagnosed with pneumonia or Kaposi sarcoma, a rare skin cancer. The underlying cause of AIDS—the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV—was discovered two years later, and knowledge about prevention, testing, and treatment slowly expanded. Nevertheless, between 1981 and 1996, over 67,000 people in New York City alone died from medical complications related to AIDS, with the highest impact among gay men and poor communities of color. Social stigma around same-sex sexuality, drug use, poverty, and illness itself only worsened the effects of the virus. People living with HIV/AIDS were often isolated, and medical costs, job loss, insurance restrictions, and rent regulations frequently prevented access to sufficient care and stable housing.
“HIV/AIDS and the responses to it, past and present, have fundamentally reshaped the way New Yorkers and Americans think about domestic life and family. Many histories of the AIDS crisis in NYC emphasize public activism and medical innovation, but an enormous part of this history has unfolded outside of public view, in people’s own homes,” said Curator Stephen Vider. “Looking at HIV/AIDS through the lens of home reveals a largely untold story and changes our understanding of the epidemic; both who is impacted and what counts as activism. The exhibition showcases the unique creativity and ingenuity of New Yorkers working to support people living with HIV/AIDS, and speaks to ongoing challenges and debates around healthcare and housing as it plays out in the city.”
Divided into three thematic sections, as well as a coda looking at responses to HIV/AIDS in the present, and featuring over 50 works of art, AIDS at Home takes visitors on a journey tracing the first two decades of the epidemic through the continuing impact of HIV/AIDS today on everyday life in New York City today. Works on display – ranging from paintings, drawings, and photographs to sculpture, installations, and textile art, as well as posters, fliers, and films – include items from Fales Library at New York University, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the New York Public Library, as well as private art galleries and artists. The exhibition also features a documentary, A Place in the City: Three Stories about AIDS at Home, produced by the Museum of the City of New York, looking at experiences of HIV/AIDS today through portraits of three activists and artists.
Section I. Caretaking
One of the earliest responses to the epidemic was the creation of caretaking networks to address the immediate material and emotional needs of people living with AIDS. Often friends and lovers provided care, but as more and more people died, many people living with AIDS were left isolated and without financial support. This section examines caretaking efforts, including Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s pioneering “buddy” program, God’s Love We Deliver, as well as works of sculpture, painting, and photography.
Section 2: Housing and Homelessness
The AIDS epidemic also led to a spike in homelessness as people living with AIDS lost or were pushed out of their apartments through evictions after the death of partners, job loss, poverty stemming from medical bills, and gentrification. A 1989 report, titled AIDS: The Cutting Edge of Homelessness estimated that there were at that time 5,000 to 8,000 people with AIDS who were homeless at the time and expected as many as 15,000 to 25,000 more in the following three to five years. This section looks at the variety of organizations that emerged in response including Housing Works, an advocacy group which emerged out of ACT UP. Other works of art in the section reflect on gentrification and conditions within city-funded supportive housing.
Section 3: Family
The early AIDS epidemic in New York also provoked new conversations about the meanings and limits of “family.” This section looks back to important legal cases around housing to understand the significance of HIV/AIDS for the emergence of domestic partnership and same-sex marriage. At the same time LGBT activists and artists pushed for an expanded vision of family and kinship that could include gay and lesbian couples and broader friendship and community networks.
Coda: HIV/AIDS at Home Today
This final section considers the ongoing experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS around housing, home, family, and everyday life, news forms of activism, and continued memorialization of people lost to HIV/AIDS. This section will include a short documentary, created by curator Stephen Vider with filmmaker Nate Lavey, looking at three activists and artists working today—Ted Kerr, from the caretaking collective What Would an HIV Doula Do?; Wanda Hernandez-Parks, from the Brooklyn-based community group VOCAL-NY; and photographer Kia LaBejia.
AIDS at Home includes work by more than 20 artists—well-known, emerging, and newly discovered—including David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin, Kia LaBeija, Hunter Reynolds, Hugh Steers, Luna Luis Ortiz, Lori Grinker, Avram Finkelstein, Susan Kuklin, L.J. Roberts, and Chloe Dzubilo, as well as many activist and support organizations.
AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism is made possible by a major gift from the Calamus Foundation, New York; with additional support provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Todd DeGarmo, Louis Wiley, Jr., Devashish Jain and Marc-Antoine Denechand, Dr. Andrew Solomon and Mr. John Habich Solomon, Mike Syers, Sarah Belin-Zerbib, Ralph Furlo, Peter Lease, Steven Stack, Joel Dooling, Alexis Unger, Jonathan Chan, Sari David, and Rosa C. Bautista. The Museum gratefully acknowledges the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support of exhibition curator Dr. Stephen Vider’s fellowship. AIDS at Home was his capstone project.
About the Museum of the City of New York
Founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation. The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. To connect with the Museum on social media, follow us on Instagram and Twitter at @MuseumofCityNY and visit our Facebook page at Facebook.com/MuseumofCityNY. For more information please visit www.mcny.org.