Sunday, June 04, 2006

AIDS Quilt Fraying and Forgotten: LA Times

The AIDS Quilt laid out in Washington DC back in what seems like eons ago.

The LA Times has an article this morning (registration required) about how the AIDS Quilt is now fraying and largely forgotten.

Here, in a corrugated-steel warehouse in Atlanta, lies the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the most powerful icon in the history of AIDS. In the 25 years of the epidemic, no symbol has managed to capture the sense of rage and loss like the quilt, born in a San Francisco backyard in 1987.

It brought the horror of the disease to America with both its vastness and detail — a patchwork the size of 24 football fields sewn from the artifacts of lost lives. It became the banner of the epidemic, shaking the government and priming the funding pipeline that has poured billions of dollars into AIDS research.

Today, the quilt has largely become a museum piece.

The panels, which once arrived by the thousands each year, now trickle in at a few dozen a month. The more than 50 quilt chapters that once spread the word across the country have dwindled to 16. The NAMES Project Foundation, which oversees the quilt, has downsized to stave off bankruptcy.

While small sections are still loaned out each year to about 1,000 schools, charities and companies, the whole quilt — acres of fabric sewn to shame, alarm and remember — has not been rolled out in a decade.

"A lot of people think the quilt is out of business," said Beth Milham, a 63-year-old retired nurse who still runs panel-making workshops near her home in Providence, R.I. "They don't hear about it anymore."

The quilt has gone the way of AIDS itself in the United States — swept into the background as new drugs have driven down the death rate here and shifted the epicenter of anguish overseas, where the disease kills 2.8 million people a year.

The foundation has become more a curator of history, shying away from the activism of its roots.

Executive director Julie Rhoad said the foundation welcomes all requests.

"If you are an activist and you want to use the quilt, that is your choice. If you are a teacher and want to educate, that is your choice," she said.

But those who want to rekindle the fire of the past say parceling out the quilt for tiny displays is like letting a sword rust in its scabbard.

They point to the statistics: 15,798 deaths in the United States in 2004 and 40,000 new infections.

"The people with the quilt have a weapon that they have decommissioned," said Cleve Jones, 51, a prominent gay activist who conceived the quilt and made the first panel in 1987 for his best friend, Marvin Feldman.


The foundation is at odds with its founder, who has pushed for using the quilt for political demonstrations. After Jones set out to prove that he could raise the money for a Washington display before the 2004 presidential election, the foundation fired him as spokesman for the quilt.
Jones sued, claiming wrongful termination, and demanded that the quilt be put in receivership so that it could be returned to San Francisco.

"It's abandoned," he said. "It's abandoned its purpose."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Walking among those panels was an emotional, spiritual experience I will never forget. Visiting my friends and touching thier panels touching the ones I made, hugging people I didn't even know, sharing, remembering. I think the need for a full display is still vital. It's jarring and beautiful and dramatic and you can't walk away indifferent.