A Country Without Art : On Friday, Hundreds of Organizations Nationwide Will Mark the Toll AIDS Has Taken on the Arts Community


At New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Pablo Picasso’s famed “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” usually hangs, there will be only a placard Friday. The note will say that the missing masterpiece symbolizes the loss suffered by the art world from those who have died of AIDS.

In Los Angeles, visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the County Museum of Art will find that the museums’ usual admission fees are being waived for the day. Museum visitors will be handed information on acquired immune deficiency syndrome and asked to make a donation to AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Among the nationwide participants are the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., which plans to go into 15 corporate locations in the Boston area to which it has lent works, shrouding about 60 of the works with a heavy black cloth imprinted with a poem about AIDS by Melvin Dixon.


As many as 700 museums, galleries and performance spaces nationwide will symbolically mark the toll AIDS has taken on the art world. The Friday events, which will range from Pasadena’s new Armory Center for the Arts closing its doors to New York’s Artists Space gallery hosting a controversial three-week AIDS-related exhibition, are all part of “A Day Without Art: A National Day of Action and Mourning,” which is being held in conjunction with the World Health Organization’s “AIDS Awareness Day.”

“What ‘A Day Without Art’ means is that, as the arts community has been hard hit by the AIDS crisis, the impact can be felt. At some time there could be no art,” said Cee Brown, a core member of Visual AIDS, the New York-based arts group that has organized “A Day Without Art.”

According to Brown, the original idea was to hold a moratorium in which arts institutions would close down to symbolize what a day without art would be like. But the intent has not held up in the year since the planning meetings began. While some galleries and performance spaces plan to close, most participants say they will honor the day in “more positive” ways.

In New York, two highly controversial shows have generated a good deal of press and public attention. One involved National Endowment for the Arts funding of “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” a show of AIDS-related works by 23 artists at the Artists Space Gallery, and the other involved the placement of an 8-by-12-foot banner reading “All People With AIDS Are Innocent” on the outside of Manhattan’s Henry Street Settlement House, which is housing a Day Without Art exhibition called “Images and Words: Artists Respond to AIDS.” (See related story, F8.)

Susan Wyatt, director of Artists Space, said that, despite the informational content of “Witnesses,” the gallery would close Friday to observe the day.

The two exhibitions are not the first of their sort to spark controversy.

“The art censorship thing all comes right out of homophobia,” said Brown, referring to this summer’s controversy over National Endowment of the Arts funding for a show including sexually explicit works by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in March. “Because of Mapplethorpe and other funding controversies (related to homophobia and AIDS issues), it’s really more important than ever that we make this a nationwide effort to teach the public about AIDS.”

Visual AIDS committee members said the recent controversies have given “A Day Without Art” a publicity boost and are more likely to help than hinder participation.

In the Southland, however, while many high-profile institutions are participating, things are much lower key. About 40 institutions are participating, but several--including the Norton Simon Museum, Huntington Library, California Afro-American Museum and Pacific Asia Museum--are not. Officials said they were unaware of the day’s observance until contacted about it for this article.

“I guess we weren’t on the mailing list,” said a spokeswoman for the Norton Simon. “But it’s our policy that we don’t participate in anything like that, so I’d be surprised if we were. But no, we weren’t even aware of (‘A Day Without Art’).”

Neither of the largest art museums in San Diego’s Balboa Park will be participating. Nancy Petersen, director of the Timken Art Gallery, said her institution hadn’t heard of the Visual Aids observance prior to the Times’ call.

“ ‘I don’t think anyone down here’s heard about it,” she said. “You’ll probably get the same response from the other museums. It’s a very nice cause, but I’m afraid we’re out of it.”

Virtually next door to the Timken, however, is the San Diego Museum of Art, whose director, Steven Brezzo, says has long been well aware of the nationwide plans. But Brezzo said his museum was tied up with the Soviet Arts Festival Faberge Eggs and the tickets were presold. “It’s the mayor’s arts festival, so we really can’t do anything about it,” he said.

Yet the smaller Museum of Photographic Arts, which also shares the plaza with the Timken and the San Diego Museum, will participate. Said director Arthur Ollman, “We want to show solidarity with the people suffering with AIDS and with the art world generally which is making this happen.” The musuem will donate all proceeds to the San Diego AIDS Assistance Fund.

Among other local institutions that are taking part, participation varies widely. (See listings, F9.) The most active include the politically aloof J. Paul Getty Museum, which is using the day to honor Samuel Wagstaff Jr., an important collector who had close ties to the museum and died of AIDS in 1987; and the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which is presenting a piece by local performance artist Tim Miller, focusing on his life as a gay man in the era of AIDS. (See related story, F6.)

“There was a lot of staff sentiment that we should do something. We wanted to make a serious statement, and one that had a special connection to us,” said Deborah Gribbon, the Getty’s associate director of curatorial affairs. Gribbon noted that although the museum had not participated in such a highly political issue before, it had never before been approached about a comparable issue so deeply affecting the arts community.

To honor Wagstaff, whose important collection of about 7,500 pictures makes up what Gribbon called “one of the important bases of our photography collection,” the Getty on Friday is darkening its current photograph exhibition, “Experimental Photography: The Machine Age.” Instead, a wall display will feature a photograph of Wagstaff by his protege, good friend and fellow AIDS victim, Mapplethorpe. A nearby wall label will read, “Please join us in honoring Sam Wagstaff and his contribution to art. So that we may not continue to lose more like him, we encourage you to contribute your time or other resources to organizations in your community involved in research, education and care for people with AIDS.”

Also participating is UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery, which is airing the six-hour “Video Against AIDS” that is being shown Friday in more than a dozen nationwide locations, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

At USC’s Fisher Gallery, a display will be made of two collage/assemblage paintings by artist Dennis Hilger, who was head of the university’s Continuing Education Program in Visual Arts, and died of AIDS in March, 1988.

“It will kind of be an homage to Dennis,” said gallery director Selma Holo. “For me, that’s more useful than closing down.”

Just as local institutions differ in their choice of how to observe “A Day Without Art,” they also differed in the ways decisions were made to participate. Whereas institutions such as the Getty and MOCA made all-staff decisions to participate, at institutions such as the Municipal Art Gallery and USC’s Fisher Gallery directors made the decisions. At the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which will donate its proceeds from the day to AIDS Project Los Angeles and will present written statements from various artists responding to AIDS, the decision was made jointly between executive director Tom Rhoads and the two artists currently showing at the gallery, Amy Gerstler and Alexis Smith.

At the main city-sponsored gallery, Barnsdall Park’s Municipal Art Gallery, director Ed Leffingwell said he talked the matter over with city officials, but that the gallery itself would not close or participate because, “as civil servants we’re in a position to provide services to the city.” Artwork in the gallery’s offices, however, will be taken down and turned to face the wall.

“It’s not a city policy, but just something that we’re doing voluntarily,” Leffingwell said.

Nationwide, a variety of participation levels has also been noted, although the effort seems to be heavily concentrated in the East. Organizers estimate, for instance, that at least 225 different organizations are participating in New York alone.

Many Los Angeles institutions said the limited local involvement was due to a lack of planning by the event’s New York organizers. But others, such as Santa Monica Museum of Art’s Rhoads, and Christopher Ford, director of Santa Monica’s Pence Gallery, said that AIDS is simply not perceived to be as critical in Los Angeles that it is in New York.

“If you live in New York, you’re much more conscious of that impact upon the community,” said Rhoads, a former resident of New York. “You sense the strength of the crisis of AIDS much more in New York than you do here. I think Los Angeles has a lot of catching up to do in terms of consciousness.”

For their part, members of Visual AIDS--which is comprised of about 20 volunteer committee members who are employed in various visual arts areas--said that their planning of “A Day Without Art” was somewhat haphazard.

“This was done on spit and glue,” said committee member Brown. “It started just with a group of us sitting around talking and saying, ‘What if. . .?’ . . . and it’s turned into a major (nationwide effort).

“Obviously, the best thing would be to have everybody in the country shut down, but that’s not going to happen. The original idea was for a moratorium, but it’s impossible to get that. There’s too many places where you’re talking major revenue. A place like the Metropolitan Museum of Art won’t close down for a day, they just can’t afford to. So we just decided to let each organization figure out how they wanted to handle it.”

Jan Breslauer and Mary Helen Berg contributed to this article.