World AIDS Day takes place on December 1 of every year. Designated in 1988 by the World Health Organization as part of a global public health initiative, this day raises awareness of HIV/AIDS, encourages people to support those living with HIV, and offers an opportunity to mourn and commemorate those who have died of an AIDS-related illness. Visual AIDS was founded that same year to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic’s impact on the artistic community. Founded by art critic and writer Robert Atkins, curators Gary Garrels, Thomas Sokolowski, and William Olander (1951-1989), Visual AIDS was a response to debates about the role of art and artists in responding to AIDS, which at the time was polarized between direct “activist” modes of artmaking and mournful “sentimental” expressions. Neither of these extremes allowed for a fully artistic response to the epidemic.
Atkins, Garrels, Sokolowski, and Olander were connected through their roles in the art world and close proximity of their places of work which were scattered throughout Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. Around the time of Visual AIDS’ founding, Robert Atkins was covering AIDS-related exhibitions for the Village Voice, Gary Garrels, a curator at Dia, was working with artist collective Group Material on an exhibition called, AIDS and Democracy: A Case Study, Sokolowski was in the process of organizing an exhibition of photographs of people with AIDS at NYU’s Grey Gallery, where he was a curator, and William Olander, a curator at the New Museum, commissioned a window installation from ACT UP.
Day Without Art was Visual AIDS’ first major event. It launched on December 1, 1989 as “a day of action and mourning.” Thousands of arts institutions and organizations around the world organized to illustrate the true loss of art and artists created by AIDS epidemic, and demonstrate the power of art to raise awareness of the ongoing AIDS pandemic. This was a truly astonishing feat for a nascent organization and an event that was planned in a matter of months. The Guggenheim shrouded its exterior in a mourning veil, the Metropolitan Museum of Art removed Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a memorial service with readings and musical compositions, and the Brooklyn Museum installed a commissioned work from Felix Gonzalez-Torres which consisted of simple text about the artist’s struggle with HIV/AIDS.
Day Without Art gave a significant platform to artists and collectives like Gran Fury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, General Idea, Group Material, and David Wojnarowicz who were crucial to the art world’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Day Without Art has been held each year since 1988, with projects and responses evolving to respond to the current status of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today, Visual AIDS plays an important role in advocating for HIV-positive artists and their work. The organization regularly facilitates artist projects, exhibitions, publications, and public programs. Visual AIDS also hosts Artist+ Registry and Archive Project, is the largest database and registry of works by visual artists with HIV/AIDS, and is a public resource to educate and inspires contemporary art exhibitions, public programs, publications, and research by curators, art historians, activists, and students.
We encourage you to explore Visual AIDS Day With(out) Art 2021 project, Enduring Care, featuring videos highlighting strategies for community care for those living with HIV.
For more information about Visual AIDS impact on 1980s art, please see Kyle Croft’s Hunter College Master’s Thesis, Mobilizing Museums Against AIDS: Visual AIDS and Day Without Art, 1988–1989.