Like an incision, a black sash fell from the roof to the ground of New York’s Guggenheim Museum on December 1, 1989. Designed by Gabellini Sheppard Associates, the piece disrupted the clean horizontality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic and ethereal building. On the one hand, the abstract work evoked a burial shroud. On the other, it was like a curtain that viewers were asked to pull back, to take in whatever unpleasant truths might lie behind it. The occasion of this simple, ominous, and emphatic gesture was the inaugural Day Without Art, a “national day of mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis.” It was the peak of the early HIV/AIDS crisis, and the event’s name was at once a polemic and a prophecy: with so many artists dead or dying of AIDS, the world would soon be one bereft of color and creativity. The first Day Without Art, which coincided with the second World AIDS Day, sought to provoke a series of uneasy questions: If AIDS were to extinguish the artistic community, who would produce the art? What purpose would art institutions then serve? And what effects would this cultural void have on society?
Now in its thirty-first year, Day Without Art illuminates our need for public mourning and collective action in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, Day Without Art has its thirty-first iteration against a backdrop of mass mourning and widespread museum closures as a result of COVID-19. Financial pressures at art institutions have resulted in unprecedented layoffs and furloughs of employees as well as the difficult decisions to sell off invaluable collections. A full third of museums report they are at risk of permanent closure. Those that continue to offer programming and exhibitions—often online—struggle with how to do so in a way that is relevant to our present moment. Reflecting on the history of a Day Without Art offers important lessons on how art institutions rose to the challenge of responding to our age’s other great pandemic, and may provide guidance for how they can do so again.
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On that first Day Without Art, the Guggenheim joined more than 800 museums, galleries, and arts organizations across the country to underscore the gravity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Participating institutions that year stretched coast to coast—including in Los Angeles, Columbus, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Sarasota, and Pittsburgh—with a quarter of them in New York City. The way they observed the day varied. Some closed their doors to the public, other dimmed the lights, and some removed or cloaked specific works that were normally on display. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hid from view Pablo Picasso’s legendary portrait of Gertrude Stein, as if to point to all of the great works that would now never come into existence.
Day Without Art was a grassroots endeavor that sought to respond quickly to a crisis that intensified on a daily basis. It was initially conceptualized as a daylong moratorium in the art world.
Some institutions opted for creation rather than subtraction. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, hosted a vigil with an original musical score written and performed by none other than Leonard Bernstein. Other museums displayed panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a monumental and growing community artwork that had yet to be exhibited in white cube galleries. At Artists Space in Manhattan, Nan Goldin curated Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, a group show that vividly depicted the pandemic’s impact on local queer communities. At the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, Tom Grabosky organized Paper Prayers, a participatory exhibition of small works that were produced as “prayers” of mourning and hope. At the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Keith Haring painted a large mural in memory of artists who had died of AIDS. Haring, then one of the most famous and influential artists worldwide, would succumb to the disease in just a couple of months.
Besides embracing Day Without Art as an opportunity for collective mourning, hundreds of museums devised public programs that raised awareness about HIV/AIDS and promoted safe sex. Video Against AIDS, a six-hour program of activist video art curated by John Greyson and Bill Horrigan, was screened at dozens of institutions. The Iowa Arts Council held an AIDS awareness poster competition for high school students. Even children’s museums in Boston, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Pittsburgh hosted AIDS educational activities and discussion groups. The vast constellation of closures, removals, installations, exhibitions, performances, workshops, fundraisers, vigils, and other initiatives revealed the extent to which the art and museum worlds were able to come together to memorialize and take action. Participating institutions opened up space for public grief, reflection, education, and activism—essential acts of sustenance and survival in the face of a terrible pandemic.
Despite its institutional success, it is important to note that Day Without Art was a grassroots endeavor that sought to respond quickly to a crisis that intensified on a daily basis. Organized in under six months on a shoestring budget, it was the brainchild of Visual AIDS, an organization founded in 1988 in New York City by four friends and colleagues: art critic Robert Atkins and curators William Olander, Thomas Sokolowski, and Gary Garrels. The future their community faced was grim: in 1988 when the group was founded, there had been 22,434 diagnoses and 14,151 deaths in New York City, and 82,764 diagnoses and more than 46,000 deaths nationally. The HIV retrovirus had been identified by scientists, but no effective treatment or cure was imminent. Involved to varying degrees in local activism, the founders of Visual AIDS sought to foreground the health crisis in the art world by championing AIDS-related exhibitions and programming. The art world was rocked by the pandemic, with artists, gallerists, critics, curators, and their audiences dying left and right. Meanwhile, more and more art was being created about the virus. As Sokolowski put it, “When you have that many artists making work about AIDS, you’ve got to take it seriously.” The founders of Visual AIDS were quickly joined by a growing roster of about two dozen local curators and arts professionals who offered their expertise, organizing experience, and networks to the fledgling organization. Visual AIDS initially functioned as a press agency, promoting AIDS-related cultural events so as to stir up publicity, but soon it moved on to developing its own projects.
Initially conceptualized as a daylong moratorium in the art world, Day Without Art was the group’s first major undertaking. Its organizers were inspired by two earlier instances when activists put pressure on art institutions to respond to urgent geopolitical conflicts that were instigated or exacerbated by the U.S. government. One of the precursors was the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on October 15, 1969, taken up in the New York art world by the Art Workers Coalition. This group of cultural activists pushed museums to denounce the war by closing their doors to the public for the day. While some museums and commercial galleries observed the moratorium, others stayed open and faced angry picketers. Along with thousands of concurrent mass demonstrations and teach-ins across the country, the event bolstered the anti-war movement at a critical juncture. The other main reference point for Day Without Art was the Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Opposing U.S. involvement in state terrorism in El Salvador and Nicaragua, this national mobilization came to life through over 200 exhibitions and events in 1983 and 1984, raising funds for cultural organizations in Central America.
The project tactically wove its way into the culture of hundreds of institutions, taking advantage of available resources and carving out space for necessary public conversations about politics, health, and loss.
As a one-day event like the 1969 moratorium, Day Without Art was strategically timed to coincide with World AIDS Day. The World Health Organization and the United Nations had implemented and first observed World AIDS Day a year before, on December 1, 1988. In fact, World AIDS Day was the first international day designed to elevate awareness of a particular public health issue, and it made perfect sense for Day Without Art to piggyback on the occasion, extending AIDS awareness to the cultural arena.
A committee at Visual AIDS deliberated over how to make Day Without Art as compelling, accessible, and adaptable as possible. One problem with calling for a strict moratorium was that many museums would have been averse to losing money on a regular day of business. Shutting down an institution might also have been a missed opportunity for community engagement and education. As such, the organizers settled on a loose and malleable framework, open to interpretation and elaboration; after all, there was no formula for mourning and activism. As Atkins remembered: “Our inability to co-ordinate a widely-dispersed national effort initially seemed a weakness, but proved to be an advantage. Local responses became the heart of a so-called national event.”
Faxing out scores of invitations and press releases, Visual AIDS urged hundreds of institutions to take part. Though some museums were easy to enroll, the prospect was highly controversial at others, leading to tense confrontations between trustees, museum directors, staff, and community members. At the time, museums rarely showcased artwork with queer themes and activist messages, and the country was in the throes of the culture wars. In June 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art called off Robert Mapplethorpe’s posthumous retrospective The Perfect Moment (the photographer had died from AIDS that spring) when the gallery found itself at the center of national debates on state-funded cultural production, censorship, queer sexuality, and HIV/AIDS. John Lane, the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), at first flatly rejected Day Without Art, possibly concerned about its political ramifications, even in a city with a sizable queer community inordinately affected by the virus. But as one institution after another signed on, pledging to do something special to mark the occasion, Day Without Art turned into a trendy event. Now anxious that SFMOMA would look bad, Lane frantically telephoned Sokolowski, demanding, “Is there still time to get on the poster?” “Yes,” Sokolowski replied. “But what are you going to do?”
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Tremendously successful in the first year, Day Without Art has pressed on annually as HIV/AIDS continues to be a public health crisis that inflames inequalities along lines of race, sexuality, gender, class, and geography. Though it is no longer a surprise when museums collaborate with activist campaigns, Day Without Art is incomparable with regard to its wide-ranging breadth of institutional infiltration, its decentralized framework, and its longstanding presence in the cultural landscape. The project was visionary because it tactically wove its way into the culture of hundreds of institutions, taking advantage of available resources and carving out space for necessary public conversations about politics, health, and loss. Importantly, Day Without Art insisted that mourning and action were inseparable. Just as memorializing the dead was a political practice, public and personal grief drove emergent activism. The experiencing, making, and exhibiting of art facilitated these essential processes.
Loss is the cornerstone of our radically reconfigured culture. Yet for the most part there has been little room for grappling with the harsh whirlwind of COVID-19, the presidency of Donald Trump, and the onslaught of racial violence.
Now in its thirty-first year, Day Without Art not only reminds us that the HIV/AIDS crisis is ongoing, but also illuminates our need for public mourning and collective action in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Loss is the cornerstone of our radically reconfigured culture. Yet for the most part there has been little room for grappling with the harsh whirlwind of COVID-19, the presidency of Donald Trump, and the onslaught of racial violence. Since the economic crisis has ravaged the art world and may ultimately lead to a museum mass extinction event, Day Without Art’s apocalyptic name now takes on new meaning. Despite the wider array of programming now offered virtually as well as cautious attempts at reopening—often only to be reversed—museums are overshadowed by existential questions. Just as the epidemiological course of COVID-19 is impossible to forecast, it remains unclear if museums will be able to reconstitute themselves in this era of social distancing and scarcity.
Rather than a template for navigating the most recent pandemic, Day Without Art is an invitation to rebuild the art institution as a space suitable for both grief and mobilization. This is no small task, especially since many museums were already struggling with structural issues even before COVID-19 struck. On top of this, an obvious yet crucial difference between the HIV/AIDS pandemic and COVID-19 is that physical togetherness—a traditional feature of both memorialization and protest, not to mention museum attendance—accelerates the spread of the coronavirus, whereas by the time of the first Day Without Art, it was known that HIV/AIDS could not be spread by proximity.
Turning to the digital realm, some museums are avidly archiving pandemic-related art and creating topical exhibitions. For instance, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago observed Day of the Dead with an online exhibition in memory of those lost to COVID-19. Other museums are cultivating more robust digital programs of art therapy and community engagement. The Queens Museum, for example, launched La Ventanita (“little window” in Spanish), a multi-platform initiative that utilizes art-making as a tool for healing and building community. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has crafted a curatorial program called the Care Syllabus, which hopes to rethink collective care and racial justice in the midst of the pandemic.
Day Without Art shows us that it is strategic to reimagine the museum as a meaningful site of mass mourning, memory, and activism. As COVID-19 stretches on, perhaps this is museums’ best shot at survival.
Though these individual projects seem promising, to respond to the pandemic in both its immensity and its complexity might require a different scale of ambition and mobilization. Day Without Art shows us that it is not only possible, but also strategic to reimagine the entire museum ecology as a meaningful site of mass mourning, memory, and activism. As COVID-19 stretches on, perhaps this is museums’ best shot at survival.