Art Works Blog

Commemorating World AIDS Day

AIDS Quilt in front of White House, courtesy of flickr user schacon

On World AIDS Day, which coincides with A Day With(out) Art, it is easy to mourn not only the artists we lost to AIDS, but the potential art they might have created had they lived. But instead of mourning, today we are celebrating an organization whose work ensured that these interrupted artistic legacies will continue to live on.

In 1989, Randall Bourscheidt became the president of New York City’s Alliance for the Arts, a position he held until last year. His early tenure was, of course, a time when the country’s creative communities were being devastated by AIDS, which was still insidiously quick and certain in its push toward death. In 1990, Bourscheidt was approached by The Equitable insurance company, who asked him to initiate formal discussion concerning the preservation of work by artists who had died of AIDS.

“It wasn’t bad enough that a 30-year-old artist died so early in life,” remembered Bourscheidt, “but his or her work might also be lost because people in the early stages of life were far less likely to make plans for their artistic estate.” This “further indignity” rallied not only the Equitable Foundation---the charitable arm of the insurance company---but the New York Community Trust and the Warhol Foundation, all three of which donated an initial $25,000 to what was named The Estate Project for Artists With AIDS. The organization also received the legal, financial, or simply moral support of institutions ranging from the New York Public Library to the NEA.

“Our mission as we saw it was to educate and guide individual artists, and in some cases their survivors…who wished to protect and preserve the work of these artists,” Bourscheidt said. The organization was officially launched in 1991 as a project of Alliance for the Arts, and within a year had published Future Safe, a report outlining steps that artists from each discipline should take in order to secure the future of their work. A grant from The Project also enabled Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) to offer legal counsel to individual artists; previously VLA only offered support at the organizational level.

With the death toll quickly rising, time was perhaps the most critical factor in The Estate Project’s outreach efforts. But as the years went by, and AIDS became more of a chronic disease than a death sentence, The Estate Project evolved as well. Initially, the organization focused on those who “might find that they were in rapidly declining health, and therefore there was a time urgency to deal with these issues,” Bourscheidt said. “It changed from that to a more art historical emphasis which was to show respect to artists who had already died of AIDS.” The not-for-profit began to create a catalog of artists who had died of AIDS, including biographical information and a listing of their works. Complete archives for theater, music, choreography, and dance are stored at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; most information is online as well. The archive remains unfinished in the areas of literature, filmmaking, and architecture, as The Estate Project has been dormant for the last several years.

As the Estate Project cataloged the work of individual artists, it was in turn capturing the history of AIDS through art. Because so many works focused on artists’ experience with the disease, the archive shows how creativity can persist, and even thrive, despite ravages to the mind, body, and community. “[AIDS] had one immobilizing and almost positive aspect,” Bourscheidt said, “and that is that many of these artists, because they were gifted with the talent that made them artists, were able to express their reactions to AIDS.” As Bourscheidt noted, these cross-discipline works were used to “express [artists’] fear and pain and suffering, to their defiant hope for the future,” creating a heartbreakingly vivid chronicle of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced her vision for an “AIDS free generation.” We at the NEA hope that this vision comes to fruition, so that future generations will never have to fear a world without art, creativity, or inspiration.


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