When the HIV/AIDS crisis emerged in the 1980s, New York became its epicenter. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, more than 25,000 people had died of AIDS-related complications in the city by the end of 1990.
The epidemic didn’t just create patients; it also turned New Yorkers into caretakers. “AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism” at the Museum of the City of New York explores how.
Using art as a lens, the exhibition chronicles the emotional and personal effects of the epidemic. As activists took to the streets to demand research, funding and recognition, much of the response to the crisis took place behind closed doors.
As people struggled to learn how to care for their loved ones and community members, the exhibition argues, they also redefined the concept of family.
Artifacts and stories from such organizations as God’s Love We Deliver, which began when a hospice volunteer delivered a meal to a homebound man living with AIDS in 1985, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis buddy program, which matched patients with people willing to provide emotional support and socialization, are on display.
Artwork — including Jeffrey Scott Wilson’s heartbreaking “HIV Sampler,” a piece of needlework that transforms a traditional sampler into a commentary on the epidemic’s true cost — documents other ways New Yorkers coped with HIV/AIDS.
As the crisis deepened, many of its fiercest battles were fought in private as caretakers struggled against stigma, learned to care for patients with a previously unrecognized disease and tried to make sense of the epidemic’s overwhelming scope. But the exhibition tells public stories, too: A 1989 flyer challenging a tax break received by Donald Trump while the city’s patients suffered and a photo of ACT UP protester Ronny Viggiani holding a sign that says “Surrender Donald” draw intriguing connections to the present day. So does a short documentary — directed by Nate Lavey and Stephen Vider, who is also the curator of the exhibition — that brings current-day art and activism to life through the stories of caretakers and community groups.
“AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism” runs through Oct. 22.