From June 8 to June 20, Milwaukee area residents and visitors will be able to see a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt for the first time in more than four years. The AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Art Museum have joined forces to co-sponsor the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt exhibition, with the support of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund.
The AIDS Quilt will be displayed concurrently with “American Quilts: Selections from the Winterthur Collection.” The museum decided to exhibit nine panels from the AIDS Quilt as a complement to that collection of Colonial quilts.
“After we knew that we were having this more traditional quilt exhibition, we really wanted to also make a more contemporary show,” said Mel Buchanan, assistant curator at MAM.
Despite the differences in time and society, the AIDS Quilt fit because it embodies the spirit of traditional quilt-making, which includes documenting personal histories and memorializing major life events. Like Colonial quilts, which were often created by families and community members working together over time, the AIDS Quilt is an ongoing community project that “serves as a repository of history and of memory,” Buchanan said.
The AIDS Quilt “continues the tradition of using quilts as communication ... and as the medium by which you can express (such emotions as grief),” said MAM director Dan Keegan.
Joe Pabst, who founded the Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund to recognize his seven-year relationship with Robert Johnson, who died of AIDS complications, said the AIDS Quilt “is the largest ongoing community folk art project in the world in history.”
Each panel of the quilt is created by bereaved friends and/or family members and measures roughly the size of a human grave, said Janece Shaffer of the NAMES Project Foundation. Eight panels are then sewn together to make a block, which is 12-feet square.
There are a total of 6,000 blocks - each one as big as a typical bedroom. In total, there are 47,000 panels that honor 92,000 names. Though the quilt has grown so immense that it’s nearly impossible to exhibit it in entirety, Shaffer said it represents only 17.5 percent of the lives that have been lost to AIDS.
Buchanan said the museum decided to display pieces that had strong ties to the arts community. The chosen blocks were designed and created by some of the world’s foremost fashion designers. They were among the first to join the fight against AIDS, and creating the panels was a natural extension of their fight.
“It was one community’s response because so many of their own were lost to the pandemic,” Shaffer said. “It was fitting to have that community respond through the medium that most suited them – textiles.”
The NAMES Project and ARCW wanted to connect the exhibit back to the local community. Included in the exhibit is the “Milwaukee Remembers” panel, created in 1987 by the Milwaukee AIDS Project, which later became ARCW. It depicts more than 50 white doves taking flight over a field of deep blue.
According to a 1989 article in MAP’s newsletter, the panel took an entire summer to finish, utilizing both paid and volunteer staff. The article details a time when Milwaukee was facing the peak of the AIDS crisis, and the MAP panel commemorates the lives that were being lost.
This AIDS Quilt exhibition underscores the excellent relationship between MAM and ARCW, said ARCW vice president and chief development officer Dan Mueller. MAM has been a regular donor to ARCW’s Make a Promise dinner and has hosted celebrations for the organization.
“When Joe (Pabst) approached us with the prospect of doing another project with MAM, we were very excited,” Mueller said. “The museum curator has really taken the lead on making the connections and doing the leg-work. (MAM has) been amazing.”
“The goal of the exhibit is to celebrate how far we’ve come in the fight against AIDS,” and to serve as a reminder that there is still so much to be done in this fight, Mueller said. “It is going to take courage, passion and the help of a lot of people to achieve what needs to be done next.”
The AIDS Quilt will be on display in the Schroeder Galleria. To increase its accessibility to the community, the exhibit is free and open to the public.
But MAM has made it possible for ARCW to do some additional fundraising in conjunction with the exhibit. When MAM patrons pay full-price admission to the museum, they can present a special postcard that will be distributed at PrideFest to trigger a $2 donation to ARCW from MAM.
The postcard is valid for the duration of the Winterthur exhibition, not just for the two weeks that the AIDS Quilt is on display.
Editor’s note: See Deb Brehmer’s review of “American Quilts: Selections from the Winterthur Collection” in this week’s Art Gaze.