Public Library Examines AIDS Activism Through Its Artifacts & Architects

The Gran Fury art collective produced some of the most arresting images employed by ACT UP in the fight against AIDS. | NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Gran Fury art collective produced some of the most arresting images employed by ACT UP in the fight against AIDS. | NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

An exhibit at the New York Public Library that opens on October 4 focuses on the years of activism that forced government at all levels as well as private institutions to respond to the AIDS epidemic in America.

“The library is doing this show because after five years of working to preserve this material we wanted to open it up to the public to experience it first hand,” said Jason Baumann, the library’s coordinator for collection assessment and LGBT collections, who curated the exhibit with Laura Karas, an archivist at the library.

“Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” uses four broad themes –– changing perceptions of people with AIDS, safe sex and needle exchange, public mourning, and healthcare activism –– to explore the grassroots responses to the AIDS epidemic. It draws on the library’s extensive collection of records donated by individuals and AIDS groups as well as material that was loaned to the library. Records from about a dozen AIDS and gay groups are represented in the exhibit.

Exhibit focuses on grassroots response from groups including ACT UP, Gran Fury, GMHC, zine publishers

Running through April 2014, the exhibit also features a film series, with screenings through February, curated by Jim Hubbard, the director and co-producer of “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP” and a co-director of the ACT UP Oral History Project. The Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague,” David France’s documentary about AIDS activists’ successful effort to fast-track AIDS drug development, will be screened on October 23. The library will also be conducting HIV awareness programs for teenagers at roughly a dozen branches across the city.

Using video of ACT UP demonstrations and original publications, such as the first safe sex pamphlet ever distributed and a copy of “Diseased Pariah News,” a zine that published 11 issues from 1990 to 1999, “Why We Fight” captures the battle that activists fought to reduce the stigma aimed at people with AIDS and to get the government to join the fight against the disease.

The exhibit has buttons and posters used by AIDS activists, props that were a central feature of ACT UP demonstrations, and original safe sex comics produced by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other groups, and even reports filed by GMHC volunteers who were buddies to people with AIDS. Baumann, who was an ACT UP member, uses the exhibit to describe how community members responded to AIDS.

“I think I tried to focus on how it felt,” he said in an October 1 interview with Gay City News that included an early look at the show. The library presented a panel discussion that evening with Avram Finkelstein, a member of the Gran Fury art collective that produced many of most startling images used by ACT UP. Finkelstein was also a member of the Silence = Death Project that created perhaps the best known image from AIDS activism. Other panelists were Ann Northrop, an ACT UP member, authors Edmund White and Sarah Schulman, and Richard Berkowitz, who wrote “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” the first safe sex pamphlet, with Michael Callen and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend.

“One of the things I love about the show is that Jason has found some interesting things to say about the well worn path of AIDS activism,” said Finkelstein.

Members of the ACT UP NY Alumni group, which includes this reporter, will present a January 14 event titled “How to ACT UP” at which they will discuss the AIDS activist group’s unique form of protest that blended the ferocious with the fabulous.

A similar exhibit ran at the New-York Historical Society and closed on September 15. That exhibit focused on the first five years of the epidemic in New York City and took a more clinical approach to its history.

“You’ve all seen silence equals death and this is essentially the years of the silence,” said Jean Ashton, the exhibition’s curator, at the May 31 opening of the society’s show. That exhibit, titled “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” covered the period immediately after the onslaught of the epidemic in 1981 that preceded the explosion of mass activism beginning with ACT UP in 1987.

“Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism” runs through April 6 at the New York Public Library (, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.