Following ACT UP Protest, the Whitney Draws Attention to the Ongoing AIDS Epidemic With a New David Wojnarowicz Wall Text

On Saturday, the protesters returned to the museum.

A demonstrator from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, at the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition "David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night." Photo courtesy of ACT UP.

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art has added new wall text about David Wojnarowicz’s membership in AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, to the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective. Since the launch of the critically acclaimed show in July, ACT UP has staged two demonstrations at the museum, drawing attention to the fact that the AIDS crisis is ongoing, not a historical event.

On Saturday, ACT UP Tweeted a photograph of the updated label, for the 1990 screenprint Untitled (ACT UP), calling it a “major victory.” The group had criticized what they characterized as the museum’s failure to inform visitors adequately about AIDS in 2018, and the continued efforts to combat the disease. Previously, the exhibition did not mention Wojnarowicz’s involvement with ACT UP, and the 1990 work, which was created to benefit ACT UP, had been accompanied by “only the barest description,” according to a statement by the group.

Despite the fact that Wojnarowicz died of AIDS and often addressed the illness in his work, “[the exhibition] does not make explicit connections to the present AIDS crisis within the exhibit,” wrote the group. “In an otherwise excellent exhibit, this is an oversight that falls into a pattern of arts institutions historicizing the activism of the past even when there are almost identical contemporary struggles.”

The label was updated last week, in response to an ACT UP protest at the Whitney on July 27, in which members held up recent articles about AIDS, formatted in the style of exhibition text, next to Wojnarowicz’s work.

“We have been in dialogue with ACT UP and are grateful to them for bringing their issues to our attention,” a representative of the museum told artnet News in an email. “We feel deep affinity with those concerns and welcome the opportunity to bring more awareness to the ongoing AIDS pandemic.”

The new text includes the group’s rallying cry, “AIDS is Not Over,” noting that “AIDS and HIV continue to affect individuals and communities throughout the world, disproportionately people of color.” It also describes last month’s demonstration by ACT UP, including a link where visitors can read a selection of the news articles displayed during the action, on the exhibition website.

“These articles join a number of videos, interviews, resources about HIV and AIDS, and other writings that we had previously posted in our desire to extend the conversation about Wojnarowicz, his work, and the ongoing AIDS crisis,” explained the museum representative, noting that the new label “was added thanks to the concerns raised by ACT UP, but not written with them.”

Following discussions with the Whitney, members of ACT UP returned to the museum on Saturday—”this time as our guests,” said the spokesperson. Members again held up current news articles about AIDS and HIV, and spoke with visitors about the current work being done to fight the disease.

ACT UP member Alan Timothy Lunceford-Stevens told artnet News in an email that “the demonstration was successful and reached a lot of the Whitney visitors.”

Read the full text of the new wall label below. UPDATE: Ariel Friedlander, one of the organizers of the ACT UP demonstrations, provided the following statement to artnet News via Facebook.

ACT UP is pleased with the Whitney’s response to our actions so far. Seeing the new statement on Untitled (ACT UP) was rewarding because the content of the plaque showed that they understand our perspective, featuring Wojnarowicz’s involvement with ACT UP and acknowledging the ongoing AIDS crisis. We appreciate that they acknowledge our protest in the wall statement as well, because it suggests that the museum is open to criticism. However, it is just a first step, and we are hopeful that this dialogue with the Whitney will result in lasting changes towards the way AIDS is addressed by all art institutions.

We would like more to be done besides just the small caption on the one artwork, and we will be meeting with the Whitney on further education, outreach and curation ideas. Panels and special events about AIDS are great, but the reality is that the people attending these events are typically already aware of current HIV related issues, and the outreach for these can only go so far. We need lasting change that is accessible to every visitor that walks into the museum. Education on the currents AIDS epidemic needs to be explicit and widely available. We also have concerns regarding profit that we may be better able to speak to after meeting with the museum directly.

David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, July 13–September 30, 2018. 

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