In awareness of and solidarity with World AIDS Day, I thought it would be useful to list key archives in the United States that document art practices and work linked to AIDS and artists living with HIV. A handful of US arts organizations and libraries contain these important collections of aesthetic production. They are important because they historicize and help us make sense of how the onset of AIDS has inflected our thinking about the human body as a sign and a material fact, as well as our understanding of the relations between private lives and politics, pleasure and desire, plus of course mortality.
The largest and most comprehensive collection is owned by the organization Visual AIDS, which was founded in 1988 and lists itself as “the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS awareness and creating dialogue around HIV issues today.” Visual AIDS produces a variety of art projects, exhibitions, public forums, and publications, and also provides material assistance to artists living with HIV or AIDS. They are perhaps best known for their ongoing international program Day Without Art, which was launched on December 1, 1989. On that day, thousands of arts institutions and organizations around the world shrouded works and replaced them with information on HIV and safer sex. (In 1998, for its 10th anniversary, Day Without Art became Day With(out) Art, to emphasize the inclusion of art projects focused on AIDS.)
The Visual AIDS Archive Project, begun in 1994 by David Hirsh and Frank Moore, essentially consists of two arms: the Archive Project and the Artist+ Registry. The former started as a slide and research library to conserve the work of artists with HIV/AIDS. The latter, on online project launched in 2012, consists of digitized versions of many of the original slides held in the Archive Project, as well as new work included by those who became members. Visual AIDS claims that the Artist+ Registry and Archive Project together comprise “the largest database and registry of works by visual artists with HIV/AIDS.” They are located at 526 West 26th Street in Chelsea, Manhattan.
Another collection, not nearly as extensive in documenting artists’ output but crucial for understanding the support mechanisms put in place to make their work possible, is the archive donated by the New York–based Alliance for the Arts, in May of 1999, to the New York Public Library. The Alliance started the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, forming it to address the conservation of America’s cultural heritage during the AIDS epidemic. It began as a temporary project and grew into permanence in the early 1990s, opening offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, under the leadership of Project Director Patrick Moore. The archive of the Estate Project contains records compiled from 1989 to 1999 which document the project’s four main areas of activity: information, counseling, advocacy, and funding programs. The project continues its work by providing practical estate planning advice to artists, especially those with HIV/AIDS, documenting losses within the arts community due to AIDS, and preserving the cultural legacy of the crisis.
This collection is quite relevant because it documents the programs that enabled the Estate Project to realize its mission, though it only contains a few objects produced by artists. The materials in this archive include correspondence, memorandums, brochures, grant applications, meeting minutes, proposals, reports, exhibition catalogues, financial records, and an artist’s book. The archive can be accessed by a request addressed to the NYPL’s Manuscripts and Archives Division in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.
New York University owns an archive that, while not specifically formed to address preserving the legacies of artists whose work dealt with AIDS, nevertheless comprises documentation of several key practitioners and organizations in this canon. The Fales Library and Special Collections includes the Downtown Collection, founded in 1993, that consists of materials pertaining to the flourishing downtown arts scene in Soho and the Lower East Side during the 1970s–90s. As they claim, that time period saw “an explosion of artistic creativity [that] radically challenged and changed traditional literature, music, theater, performance, film, activism, dance, photography, video, and other art practices.” Among the artists and organizations included in this collection are Kathy Acker, Jacki Apple, A.I.R. Gallery, Creative Time, Fashion Moda, Artists Space, Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz, David Trinidad, Larry Rivers, and Michelangelo Signorile. Finding tools are provided online, but access to the actual materials is given by appointment. The Fales Library is located at 70 Washington Square South, Greenwich Village, Manhattan.
A few other archives are worth mentioning, though their collections are either smaller or access to them is more limited. The Visual Aid project in San Francisco is not fully active these days, though for the past 25 years they were supporting artists with AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. They now have volunteers who are compiling and organizing material in their archives. These include slides, photographs, sound and video recordings, printed material and ephemera, catalogues, and documentation of significant exhibitions and fundraisers. They are located on 3181 Mission Street in San Francisco’s La Lengua neighborhood.
The Provincetown AIDS Arts Archives were established in 1994 by the Provincetown Community Compact, Inc. with the intention of documenting the lives and work of Lower Cape Cod visual artists, performing artists, writers, and composers who have died of AIDS-related causes. There is little indication of the size of their archives or how access to them is managed, however they are located in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Lastly, the One Archives housed in the libraries of the University of Southern California claims to be the largest repository of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. The One Archives were founded in 1952 and absorbed into USC in 2010. They currently house over two million archival items including periodicals, books, film, video and audio recordings, photographs, artworks, organizational records, and personal papers. The archives are linked with a gallery and museum that regularly exhibits work from the collections. The archives are located at 909 West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles’s University Park neighborhood.