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Arty Facts: a day without art

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On December 1, 1992, a mock funeral procession headed north on Michigan Avenue past the Art Institute. A bagpipe player led the cortege, followed by wreath bearers and a horse-drawn carriage. The procession was the idea of performance artist Iris Moore, and it was just one of many local events staged that year to mark A Day Without Art, the international art community's annual observance of World AIDS Day. The School of the Art Institute even sponsored a two-day symposium examining the cultural representation of people with AIDS or HIV.

Last year on December 1 the school held its annual Holiday Art Sale. Though a share of the proceeds went to the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, some students were indignant because they felt the day should have been set aside for observing the toll that AIDS had taken on the art world and society.

While some cultural groups and institutions continue to mark the date with memorials and other activities, A Day Without Art has increasingly become just another day--at least in Chicago. The local planning committee, which officially became Art AIDS Chicago in 1993, has been inactive for two years, though the city does officially acknowledge World AIDS Day with cultural and educational events, which in recent years have been coordinated through the public health department.

A Day Without Art was started in 1989 by Visual AIDS, a New York-based collective of artists and art professionals. Participants paid symbolic tribute to victims of the disease with gallery closings, the veiling or removal of artworks, the distribution of red ribbons, and candlelight vigils.

Gallery owner Catherine Edelman, who helped organize observations here in 1989 and '90, recalls how difficult it was to galvanize interest in the beginning. Response was "poor," she says, with only "seven or eight" River North galleries participating. "People had the option of closing, or doing something that would disrupt the enjoyment of artwork. Some people would've rather written checks. It wasn't money we wanted, but action. It was frustrating because people didn't grasp the concept, and how it could have an effect on the general public."

Though Edelman bowed, she continues to goad fellow members of the Chicago Art Dealers Association into observing A Day Without Art in some way. Yet this has been something of a losing battle. In 1992 about a dozen art dealers marched through the River North gallery district with candles; in 1994, after Edelman sent out informational packets, most CADA galleries took part by veiling artworks and displaying red ribbons and educational materials. But, says CADA president Frank Paluch, "nothing has come across my desk this year."

"If there's not a group of people willing to ride herd, to take names and kick butt, then the grassroots effort disintegrates," says the Chicago Artists' Coalition's Jeff Abell, who organized the first observation here and later served as chairman of the local committee. Abell says that he grew disenchanted with the political baggage that came with A Day Without Art in Chicago. "People were worried more if their name was going to be on something than whether it was going to have some impact on peoples' awareness of AIDS."

Nathan Mason joined the committee in 1991--the year that Joan Jett Blakk performed on the front steps of the Art Institute, followed by a Queer Nation die-in around a triangle of pink roses. Mason, an artist and independent curator, went on to cochair the committee in 1993 and '94. Around 1992, satellite organizations across the country were becoming "information vehicles" (as one former committee adviser puts it) for the New York office. Mason says, "If we were to become a group that could actually do serious work in Chicago, to deal with local concerns in a local fashion, then we had to have a structure that allowed us to raise funds under our own name, a not-for-profit with its own funding concerns. But New York thought we were competing with them." Illinois Arts Council visual arts director Alan Leder says, Visual AIDS "didn't have the time or sensitivity to find out what we wanted. They didn't know what was going on locally, so we decided to take it into our own hands."

But the Chicago committee ran into a roadblock, says Mason. If they wanted to incorporate as a legal entity for the purpose of raising funds, they couldn't use the term A Day Without Art because it was copyrighted by Visual AIDS. If local organizations wanted to use the name or be included in the national press materials, they had to pay a $25 fee to the New York office, which didn't share these funds with the many different groups organizing the event (this year the fee was waived). In 1990 the Chicago Historical Society had to ask Visual AIDS for permission to call their observance "A Day Without History."

After changing its name to Art AIDS Chicago in 1993 and hiring a paid intern to coordinate events, the Chicago committee began to lose its sense of purpose. The city started coordinating World AIDS Day activities four years ago. "[The committee] was a very small volunteer group, with minimal funding, and they took on what they could do at the time," says Carolyn Aguila, a former committee member who handles public programming at the Chicago Cultural Center. "It became a big job, and they didn't have the money, resources, or time to do it. They didn't want to do major fund-raising and take funds away from AIDS service organizations."

"It served a purpose when it began, but part of its success made it irrelevant," says Encarnacion Teruel, performance art director at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and a committee member from 1990 to '94. "Once cultural institutions began to form different responses to the pandemic, the committee was just supplementary to the cause. We'd see Dance for Life raise $100,000 for AIDS care and ask, what was the next level? AIDS isn't just on December 1. People started doing stuff the rest of the year."

Leder says that with progress in the treatment of HIV and AIDS with protease inhibitors, "the scourge is no longer a death sentence." This may hoodwink people into thinking that the struggle has been won, that activism is moot.

While museums like the Art Institute and the MCA continue to observe A Day Without Art, participation isn't as great as it once was. Some 3,500 cultural institutions throughout the U.S. observed the first Day Without Art in 1989; by 1992, the number had dwindled to about 600. This year, according to a Visual AIDS press release, it's down to about 170.

December 1 falls on a Sunday this year, which means that most art galleries and some museums will be closed anyway. But while the larger observance of A Day Without Art may have evaporated, there are some grassroots groups that have taken up the banner.

The Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Museum of Puerto Rican History and Culture will join Vida/SIDA--an educational, support, and alternative-treatment project attending to the AIDS crisis in the Latino community--in sponsoring a candlelight vigil and procession starting at 4:30 PM under the Puerto Rican flag sculpture at Division and Artesian. The walk continues to the museum at 1457 N. California, where there will be a reception beginning at 6 for an exhibit of work by artists living with or affected by HIV or AIDS.

"There are very few services dealing with AIDS openly in this community," says Vida/SIDA's Johnny Colon, an AIDS activist and the exhibition's curator. "It's prevalent, but it still has a stigma and shame attached to it. But this puts the issue out there and takes a stand. It's our responsibility to be accountable, to decrease the taboo. It's not from the perspective of the dying, but from those living with HIV. It's about resistance."

--Jeff Huebner

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