On the evening of July 27th, the HIV/AIDS activist organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) staged a protest throughout the Whitney Museum’s David Wojnarowicz retrospective. The group charged that, while the museum provided a sweeping view of Wojnarowicz’s passionate practice, it did not successfully connect his artwork or life story to the ongoing pandemic that is AIDS today.
Wojnarowicz spent many years fighting back against the structures that continue to prevent people from accessing education about AIDS, and proper healthcare; he was even a member of ACT UP until he died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, at age 37. For the current members of ACT UP, his legacy could have been a jumping off point for museumgoers to learn about the ongoing AIDS crisis today. Ariel Friedlander, one of the main organizers of Friday’s protest, told ARTnews:
I realized I was mostly upset because I knew that people would walk past this exhibit and they’d think it’s beautiful and think it’s important but that they would think it was history, and the AIDS crisis is over. But it’s not, and these issues that Wojnarowicz spoke about in his art are especially prevalent today in many ways concerning the AIDS epidemic. Once something is in a museum, it’s immediately memorialized, unless it is explicitly noted that these issues are going on today.
To counteract the lack of information about AIDS today, around 12 members of ACT UP stood throughout the museum with posters that mimicked the exhibition’s wall label design; each one included information on the shape of the current AIDS crisis and featured recent news items, articles, and information on Wojnarowicz’s connection to ACT UP. For example, one of the posters showed Linda Villarosa’s 2017 New York Times article on the statistics of new HIV contractions among the American South’s population of black gay and bisexual men. Another featured a news piece on Roxana Hernández’s death; she was an HIV-positive trans woman who died while being held in a detention center by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A Whitney spokesperson told ARTnews that the institution agreed with the ideas over which ACT UP protested—that the AIDS crisis is not over and that there is still work to be done—and added that the museum has scheduled a number of programs that will revolve around “Queer Art and Activism” and that docents incorporate language about the current AIDS crisis into their tours. The museum’s response ended with an excerpt from a wall label from another current exhibition, “An Incomplete History of Protest”: “As we continue to live with such loss, and AIDS still affects individuals and communities in the United States and globally, the rallying cry of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) resounds today: the AIDS crisis is not over.”