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Rutgers art museum director shares his story organizing World AIDS Day

Thomas Sokolowski, the director of the Zimmerli Art Museum, said artists in the ‘80s felt comfortable making art about topics they were passionate about, such as AIDS. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The Zimmerli Art Museum is working with the organization Visual AIDS to bring the discussion of AIDS to Rutgers. In solidarity with World AIDS Day, Zimmerli has two creative exhibitions.

The museum has a piece of artwork by AIDS activist Keith Haring on display with a picture of what Haring referred to as the radiant child, and the words ”Ignorance=Fear” and “Silence=Death” which was used for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), an organization that was more militant on its approach toward AIDS activism, according to the Zimmerli Art Museum’s website.

Thomas Sokolowski, the director of the Zimmerli Art Museum and co-founder of Visual AIDS, talked about his involvement in Visual AIDS, which was created in 1989.

“I think it was 1982 or 1983 that it ran in ‘The New York Times’ on July 4 weekend, ‘Gay cancer found.’ Everyone was shocked,” Sokolowski said. “Even though people knew that people were getting sick, it had not been coalesced in such a way until that moment.”

He was running the art museum at New York University at the time, which displayed activist art about the AIDS epidemic and in general, Sokolowski said. 

Due to the stock market collapse in 1987, artists felt that economically they were able to make art on what they felt passionate about because they would make no money to begin with. So artists like Haring felt comfortable creating artwork on AIDS, Sokolowski said. 

He remembered being in England for the first World AIDS Day and reading newspapers about the high number of people affected by AIDS, Sokolowski said.

“I remember I came back (to New York) and it struck me how it was so quantifiable on how the virus was transmitted. I called three friends to my apartment and said ‘What are we going to do about this?’” he said. “None of us were social scientists, or sociologists, or social workers or people in the medical profession, but how could we, as art custodians, put a face to AIDS.”

With the help of other friends in the art world, Sokolowski and Visual AIDS worked for museums all over the country to have exhibits in memoriam for AIDS.

This work turned into a Day Without Art, an event organized by Visual AIDS where museums take out or close certain exhibits for a day, Sokolowski said. The Metropolitan Museum of Art temporarily took down Pablo Picasso’s painting “Gertrude Stein and replaced it with a notice apologizing to those who came to see it, stating that it is similar to how AIDS can take away someone’s life suddenly and quickly.

He was also proud to be part of Night Without Light, an event started by Visual AIDS, where the lights from buildings in New York City went out for 15 minutes one night, Sokolowski said.

The organization also hosted the Electric Blanket — a slideshow of art, data and slogans of those impacted by AIDS — and the introduction of the red ribbon which stands as a symbol for AIDS, he said.

He did not like the concept of the red ribbon at first, as he thought it was tacky, but was outvoted by the other members, Sokolowski said. The organization decided not to copyright the image and it has been associated with AIDS ever since. 

He remembered visiting two friends with AIDS who passed away, and how he has since remembered the 90 people — family, friends and professionals — who died of AIDS.

He has friends today who have AIDS and are on disability, but who survived when others did not. The fear of AIDS has since died down, Sokolowski said.

“Now, AIDS is almost a thing of the past. People aren’t afraid of it anymore, they say, ‘Oh, I can take the day after pill,’” he said. “It needs to come from your generation or younger, not mine, because activisim — whenever it works — happens because you are in the midst of it.”