Visitors to MOCRA sometimes note that a significant number of works in the collection relate in some way to HIV and AIDS. Indeed, such works form a foundational stratum of the museum collection, due in large measure to MOCRA’s acclaimed 1994 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. A number of the works in that exhibition entered the nascent MOCRA collection.
Consecrations greatly expanded people’s understanding of what a museum focusing on the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary art was capable of. MOCRA Founding Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., holds the conviction that art has a deep capacity for touching the human spirit. Art also “has a voice and a power,” he says, “to draw attention and call for a response.” By bringing together in Consecrations work about HIV and AIDS by artists living a range of gender, sexual, racial, cultural, and socio-economic realities, Fr. Dempsey sought to create an environment where people could face AIDS square on, as he had done personally through the loss of close friends to AIDS-related causes.
Consecrations stimulated a number of public programs, including a talk by the late Tom Sokolowski on “The Changing Face of AIDS,” which provided an overview of the ways artists responding to the pandemic in its first decade. (You can listen to the talk here.) Sokolowski was a co-founder of Visual AIDS, an organization that “utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.” In 1989, motivated by the overwhelming impact of HIV and AIDS on the creative community, Visual AIDS launched the first Day Without Art, a national day of action and mourning held annually on World AIDS Day, December 1. Renamed Day With(out) Art in 1998, the event continues to be observed by galleries and museums, evolving just as the experience of HIV and AIDS has evolved.
MOCRA is housed in a former chapel, and Fr. Dempsey wanted it to continue to function as a site to gather community, a space where grief could be expressed, but also a place of solidarity, healing and hope. Fr. Dempsey collaborated with others in the St. Louis arts community to host a Day Without Art gathering at MOCRA on December 1, 1994, with a roster including a variety of members of the St. Louis community, including musicians, dancers, poets, and activists.
Some thirty years later, the landscape of HIV and AIDS has changed in many significant ways. MOCRA’s current exhibition, Jordan Eagles: VIRAL\VALUE, engages with this present reality, where a cure remains elusive, but more effective, less toxic treatments are available, as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that drastically reduces the risk of contracting HIV. Yet stigma and inequities in access to treatment and support services persist. Looking back to Consecrations and in the midst of VIRAL\VALUE, I reached out to two people who played key roles in realizing Day Without Art in St. Louis during the 1990s and early 2000s. Roseann Weiss and Daniel Reich were gracious about sharing their recollections.
Day Without Art in St. Louis: The 1990s
Weiss was an art dealer in the mid-1980s when she and three colleagues realized that AIDS service organizations (ASOs) like Doorways and St. Louis Effort for AIDS (now Vivent) were having a hard time getting funding from traditional sources. In 1986 they organized a coalition of artists and art organizations under the name REACT, to put on a fundraising art auction. The event proved so successful that Weiss and her colleagues formed the AIDS Foundation of St. Louis as a fundraising organization that could channel money to local ASOs. The AIDS Foundation held various events annually, including an annual AIDS Walk. (I participated in the AIDS Walk—and still have some of the T-shirts to prove it.)
Weiss went on to work at the Forum for Contemporary Art, the precursor to today’s Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. In its second location near Strauss Park in Grand Center, the Forum occupied the first and third floors, while the Regional Arts Commission occupied the second floor. When Weiss and her Forum colleague Betsy Millard sought to encourage the St. Louis arts community to take part in Day Without Art, they received helpful financial and promotional support from their neighbors at RAC. Weiss says she was “floored by the response—so many folks wanted to do something.” She recalls that members of the arts community would do some sort of observance at their own organizations, then participate in something that brought the whole community together.
One of those folks was Dan Reich, who came to St. Louis in 1986 to take a position at the Saint Louis Art Museum as Head of Adult Programs in the Education Department. Reich recalls that the museum “recognized Day Without Art from its inception. It was organized through the Education Department, rather than through curators, so it was usually programmatic, rather than exhibition based. The museum wouldn’t approve the removal of art from the walls, but we did screen appropriate films, which attracted large audiences.”
In the early 1990, Reich recalls, “Day Without Art was commemorated [at the Art Museum] by the display of a recently acquired painting by artist John-Paul Wolf, who died in 1990. This was arranged by Betsy Wright Millard, Curator of Prints and Drawings.” (Millard left the Saint Louis Art Museum to become Director of the Forum for Contemporary Art.) As it happens, the poster produced for MOCRA’s 1994 Day Without Art gathering features three photographs by St. Louis artist John Hilgert dedicated to John Paul Wolf.
Day With(out) Art observances continued throughout the 1990s. Reich took a position at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in 1999, where Day With(out) Art was marked “either programmatically or with small installations.” Reich shares that, “For several years, I exhibited a work of art entitled Infinite Numbers, created by my friend, artist Duane Puryear, who died in 1991. He combined the frequently used symbol of shoes—to refer to the AIDS epidemic, as well as the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. One survivor who was especially moved was Rachel MIller, who survived the Holocaust as a ‘hidden child,’ and refers to AIDS as her ‘second Holocaust’ because of her son’s death from the disease.”
Reich notes that Duane Puryear’s panel in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is the most requested panel for display.
Day With(out) Art in St. Louis: Since 2000
MOCRA was the site of a Day With(out) Art gathering in 2000, held in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of work by Robert Farber. Weiss was again a gathering force, helping bring together David Halen, the concert master of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Donna Parrone and Marty Stanberry of HotHouse Theater Company, and the Ambassadors of the Gateway Men’s Chorus. Fr. Dempsey invited Flo Lawshe and Sharon Paige, two staff members from the Jesuit Hall community where he resided, to share their vocal talents.
On December 1, 2006, MOCRA paused its exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, corralling the pillows and setting up a continuous projection of the images from Carolyn Jones’ Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS project, several of which had been displayed in the Consecrations exhibition in 1994.
The observance of Day With(out) Art has shifted along with the contours of HIV and AIDS and related activism. In recent years, Visual AIDS has produced a variety of short films that are screened at gallery and museum venues across the country (including in at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis).
What do we carry forward?
I asked Weiss and Reich what they learned from their early experiences with Day Without Art that think our community could benefit from today.
Reich reflects, “I think people reacted strongly to Day Without Art in the late 1980s and 1990s, because they wanted a way to show their concern for those suffering from this disease which had no cure or effective treatment at that time. If you weren’t willing to march or join ACT UP, attending a program at a cultural institution was something people felt comfortable with. Also, at that time, before effective treatment, members of the arts and cultural communities were disproportionately affected. While advanced treatments have largely controlled HIV and AIDS, it hasn’t gone away, and now it disproportionately affects marginalized populations. Day With(out) Art continues to be an important education tool to raise awareness of this ongoing crisis.”
Weiss is still awed by the power of artists and the arts. “One of the reasons I work in community-based art is my experience with art and activism on the front lines of AIDS. You couldn’t ignore AIDS, because artists wouldn’t let us ignore it.” Weiss highlights the ways collective action can help us overcome the powerlessness we might feel as individuals; when we invite people to take part in something bigger than any one person, they just might say yes! Artists can draw in even reluctant partners. Weiss recalls how Dr. Anthony Fauci eulogized playwright and activist Larry Kramer upon his passing in 2020. Fauci wryly noted that Kramer “had a unique capacity, when there were opposing arguments, to alienate everybody on both sides of the issue,” and Kramer spared no quarter in criticizing Fauci. Yet Fauci took a chance: “So I reached out — and over the years we went from acquaintances who were adversarial to acquaintances who were less adversarial to friends to very, very dear friends.”
Weiss admits to being puzzled and dismayed by our collective response to the massive losses of life from COVID and from gun violence. “What’s wrong with us?” she wonders. “How have we become so inured?” But then she recalls that AIDS activists, and artists in particular, didn’t give up. That may not be revelatory, says Weiss, but it’s something that needs to be remembered. Indeed, organizations such as Visual AIDS and What Would an HIV Doula Do? continue to harness the power of art in organizing to fight stigma, advocate for better policies and access to resources, and highlight the creativity and dignity of the diverse population of people living with HIV and AIDS.
— David Brinker, Director