Joe Pabst and MAM refine the art of AIDS awareness

Debra Brehmer, Contributing writer

Focusing attention on serious issues is a challenge in a culture that seems intent on distracting people from them.

One way that issue advocates fight back is to designate special events, commemorative days and fundraisers that highlight what might go unnoticed: Al’s Run, Breast Cancer Awareness Week, World Kidney Day. 

It was in this spirit that World AIDS Day was established in 1988 and is honored each year on Dec. 1. Globally, an estimated 42 million people carry HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In Wisconsin, about 6,500 individuals are living with HIV or AIDS. 

The intent of World AIDS Day is to support those living with HIV, remind the public that the virus has not gone away and remember those who have died. But how do we use this vast global initiative to generate reflection within our local community?

Philanthropist Joseph R. Pabst, an LGBT funder and activist, regularly thinks about that question and has come up with a gently innovative means of marking World AIDS Day in Milwaukee this year.

As Pabst tells it, he was inspired by the work of the internationally known photographer Taryn Simon after seeing her exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2011. The three Simon projects presented by MAM included “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007), which documented significant places and objects to which the public normally does not have “the privilege of access,” as she puts it. Those ranged from the CIA’s art collection to quarantine sites, nuclear disposal sites and prison death rows. 

One photograph particularly struck Pabst. It was the image of a small flask of live HIV virus, photographed at the HIV Research Laboratory at Harvard Medical School in 2007. Pabst said his initial reaction was, “I want it.” But then he realized that he could not only purchase the photograph but also “activate” it within the community. He gifted the 37 1/4 x 44 1/2 inch color print to the art museum with the stipulation that it be put on view every World AIDS Day.

The photograph will be on view Dec. 1–9. A panel discussion with Ronald S. Johnson, AIDS International’s vice president of policy and advocacy, takes place at 2 p.m. on Dec. 1.

“HIV is always evolving, mutating. It is constantly on the move,” Pabst said. “It is a constant challenge to keep up with it. In this photograph, for one brief moment, it is stopped and you have absolute control of it. It’s not running rampant so people can think about it in a different way than the molecular view.”

The image is meditative. The small, generic flask with its handwritten serial numbers and date seems both insignificant and ominous. It is photographed against a plain background, seen head-on.

The vial casts a slight shadow that propels it into the third dimension, pushing it outward. There are no distractions in the picture. We stand face to face with the clear golden container sealed by a red cap.

The image triggers both caution and allure, the two sides of danger. Mostly, the image speaks of the paradox that something so small can be both containable and unmanageable. Projecting power in the same way as a medieval religious icon, the photograph arrests the viewer in its the stark reality and stubborn presentness.

Pabst’s brand of philanthropy almost always emerges from a combination of personal, emotional and civic engagement. He thinks more like an artist or curator than a wealthy check writer. Pabst, who has degrees in art history and design, is able to apply his understanding of art’s connective force throughout history to unpack broad issues and unite seemingly disparate communities. In his hands, philanthropy is a creative vehicle for social activism. 

A perfect example of Pabst’s engaged style of giving is another project that he initiated in 2010 when the Milwaukee Art Museum presented a major quilt show from the Winterthur Collection. The traditional quilts that were displayed spoke of life in the early American Republic through the intimacy of the home. Pabst saw an opportunity to pair that show with nine panels from the Names Project AIDS Quilt.

Both shows used quilting to anchor stories, create community and memorialize people or events. The pairing of these exhibitions challenged viewers to think beyond the specifics of either show and consider human similarities rather than differences. 

“Productive civic work should share more than one purpose,” Pabst says. “It should bring things together to create a richer, denser tapestry. Two generations ago, our grandparents simply gave to big organizations like Red Cross or American Lung Association.”

Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, says charitable giving has become more “transactional”: Today’s donors want to know the impact of their giving and be more actively involved in the mission of their causes.

“Joe often sees innovative correlations between things and then brings them together to create more depth and impact,” Taylor said. “The beauty of what Joe does is that he takes fairly disparate ideas and sees a new nucleus. He creates a whole new synergy. Also, he creates a way for everyone to be involved, to share the stage.”

Pabst credits his great-great-grandfather as inspiration. The beer baron patriarch would give food baskets to needy families during holiday seasons. But beyond the basic foodstuffs, he also included nuts and chocolates, things that fed the soul as well as the stomach. 

The insertion of Taryn Simon’s Live HIV photograph into the public eye on World AIDS Day requires nothing in return. It is not a fundraising initiative. It does not ask us to run or walk, solicit donations or proselytize. This particular act of “activist philanthropy,” as Taylor describes it, only asks for a moment of reflection or wonder.

It empowers by staging a context for viewers to think their own thoughts in response to one succinct truth presented by one succinct photograph: 1.8 million people died of HIV in 2010 alone.