On Dec. 17, the night of the Third Thursday Art Walk/Art Mingle, a peaceful protest took place at the Tacoma Art Museum. Activists from a group calling itself “Tacoma Action Collective” placed signs reading “STOP ERASING BLACK PEOPLE” over signs for TAM’s “Art AIDS America” exhibit. The group also hung art on the walls of a smaller gallery space where work by local artists was on display. There was also an event called a “die in,” in which group members laid on the floor of the spaces in which the AIDS exhibit was showing.
According to its press release, the group was seeking to highlight the lack of work by African American artists in a show that deals with the AIDS epidemic that is disproportionately felt in the black community. The Tacoma Action Collective asserts that 700,000 black Americans have thus far suffered in the AIDS epidemic and accuse TAM of gross negligence in presenting a show on AIDS consisting of work by 107 artists of whom only four are African American.
The protestors demanded that “Art AIDS America” be changed to include greater representation of African American artists before the show tours nationally this year. The protest was conducted peacefully and no harm was done to persons or property. Perhaps the only harm done was to TAM’s public persona and its sense of itself as a judge of what art is worthy of notice and preservation.
The AIDS exhibit opened last October and is the result of 10 years of work by TAM’s Chief Curator Rock Hushka and Jonathan David Katz of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo.
During the press preview in October, Hushka explained the nuanced and academic purpose of the show. Is was not about the AIDS epidemic as a phenomenon so much as the response to the epidemic by artists, many of whom were connected to the gay community which is where the epidemic first struck with devastating impact.
Hushka and Katz hoped to show that the ways in which artists responded to the early phase of the epidemic shaped the subsequent course of American art. As these artists dealt with various facets of the new epidemic, they were forced to abandon some of the then current precepts and theories of art. At the time, academic art was in the throes of the postmodern view that art is devoid of content except what the viewer provides. The sudden shock and devastation of the AIDS epidemic caused many artists to look for ways to make their art have an expressive power that could deal with issues, personal and social, presented by AIDS. The thesis of “Art AIDS America” is that the ways in which artists addressed the onrush of the epidemic changed the trajectory of American art.
Since the epidemic first erupted within the Gay community, it was predominantly gay artists that were the first to have to confront and grapple with the issues involved. Since that time, the epidemic has spread to other demographic groups and artist from those groups now add their expressive power to the fight. But that is beyond the narrow scope that the current show was seeking to address. It is meant to be an art historical examination of the way in which American art was redirected by the work of artists that were dealing with the sudden and strange appearance of what at the time was an unknown and incurable disease.
The thesis of the show, however, is so erudite that visitors can be forgiven for taking it to be about the AIDS epidemic in general. The inclusion of work that dates beyond the specific time period in question does not help matters. Because the show does not stick strictly to, say, the first decade of the epidemic, it becomes less focused and the accusation that more African American art should have been included seems all the more valid.
The show has managed to elicit the same type of social action that gay groups like ACT UP undertook back in the 1980s. The protest shows that there is room for more exhibitions that examine how the AIDS epidemic involves issues such as disproportional lack of access to health care and lack of public visibility of the epidemic in the African American community.
TAM calls the concerns of Tacoma Action Collective important and valid and has agreed to do more to consider diversity in its various functions as a member of the civic community.