Day Without Art
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Day Without Art (DWA) began on December 1, 1989 as the national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis. To make the public aware that AIDS can touch everyone, and inspire positive action, some 800 U.S. art and AIDS groups participated in the first Day Without Art, shutting down museums, sending staff to volunteer at AIDS services, or sponsoring special exhibitions of work about AIDS. Since then, Day With(out) Art has grown into a collaborative project in which an estimated 8,000 national and international museums, galleries, art centers, AIDS service organizations, libraries, high schools and colleges take part.
In the past, "Visual AIDS" initiated public actions and programs, published an annual poster and copyright-free broadsides, and acted as press coordinator and clearing house for projects for Day Without Art/World AIDS Day. In 1997, it was suggested Day Without Art become a Day With Art, to recognize and promote increased programming of cultural events that draw attention to the continuing pandemic. Though "the name was retained as a metaphor for the chilling possibility of a future day without art or artists", we added parentheses to the program title, Day With(out) Art, to highlight the proactive programming of art projects by artists living with HIV/AIDS, and art about AIDS, that were taking place around the world. It had become clear that active interventions within the annual program were far more effective than actions to negate or reduce the programs of cultural centers.
In the spring of 1985, Thomas Sokolowski, then head of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, was showing the work of a promising 29-year-old artist. A few months later, a mutual friend called to tell him the artist had died. “I asked, ‘of what?’” Sokolowski recounts. “Of AIDS”, his friend said. “While I was not unaware of the pandemic,” Sokolowski says, “it still was not the first thing you thought of at that time.”
By 1985, 12,000 Americans were known to have AIDS and 7,000 died from it that year.
"I remember it just sort of started from there", Sokolowski says. “There started to be articles in the paper about AIDS. I was living in the Village and, being a gay person and being involved in the art world, I’d read about this dancer or that singer dying of AIDS. And then, in 1989 and 1990, two of my dear friends died.”
Because gay men were the most affected by the disease and the arts communities of California and New York had many gay members, the art world was reeling from the loss of so many of its own.
One night, at Sokolowski’s Manhattan apartment, a group of arts-community friends sat around a table for dinner and asked ‘what can we do?’ to bring AIDS into the general public’s consciousness. “We felt strongly that we had clout in the art world,” Sokolowski recalls.
The result of that dinner — and the monthly meetings that followed for years — was the 1989 formation of Visual AIDS, a group dedicated to using the arts to bring public attention to the AIDS crisis. The group would go on to found “Day Without Art.” And it would create perhaps the most universally recognizable symbol — the red ribbon — which stood for the clarity, unity, compassion, and determination that soon took over the fight against AIDS.
Visual AIDS's first nationwide effort was a December 1 “Day Without Art”, when some of the nation's museums shut their doors — symbolizing what would happen if AIDS wiped out the arts community — while others remained open but addressed the AIDS issue in other ways. The event, which would eventually foster World AIDS Day, received national media coverage, including calls to Sokolowski from network anchors Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The next year, Visual AIDS came up with the idea of a “Night Without Light,” when 27 of New York City's major skyscrapers, bridges, and many of the theater district's marquees went dark.
But the culmination of Visual AIDS's efforts was the creation of the little red ribbon on a gold safety pin. Sokolowski and his group managed to get presenters and awardees at the 1991 Tony Awards ceremony to wear them on national television throughout the evening. The ribbons quickly became a global symbol of the commitment to fight AIDS.
Looking back on those years, I am so proud of what a group of committed young people could do. We never gave in; and, as a result, things got better. Now, the times require new blood infused with a new vigilence.[sic]
— Thomas Sokolowski
The inaugural Day without Art exhibition held in New Zealand opened on 1 December 1995, at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. Curated by Wayne P. Marriott, the installation was undertaken by Daniel McKnight, Vicky Byrne and Marriott. In 1996 the Southland Museum and Art Gallery was awarded a New Zealand AIDS Foundation media award for its work in promoting a better understanding of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the wider community. The museum continued to annually host a Day without Art exhibition until 1999.