The 13th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Steed Taylor, Lyle Ashton Harris and Thomas Allen Harris.
Below, Visual AIDS interviews Barbara Hunt McLanahan, Executive Director at the Children's Museum of the Arts, about Steed Taylor's creative practice and his longstanding support of Visual AIDS.
VA: Steed has been a longtime Artist+ Member on the Visual AIDS board (1995–1998, 2010–2018) and a stalwart steward of the organization. How have you seen his leadership and vision reflected at Visual AIDS?
Barbara Hunt McLanahan: Steed was one of the board members who hired me in 1997 as the first female Director of Visual AIDS. It marked the beginning of a move to engage more with the New York art world, to harness the support of contemporary galleries and collectors, and particularly to more strongly identify Visual AIDS as an arts non-profit working in the field of contemporary arts to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS. At that time, we still were not seen as an artistic force within the art world—and this is significantly different now. I think back then the art world helped Visual AIDS in a patriarchal, charitable sense, whereas now the art world recognizes the strength of the artists and the credibility of Visual AIDS’ curatorial position. Steed has been an active force throughout this time to build Visual AIDS' credentials in the art world, in order to gain wider support for the artists Visual AIDS supports.
Steed was introduced to Visual AIDS by Frank Moore and Nick Debs, who was the Executive Director at that time. The Archive Project was in its nascent stages, and Steed worked to help Visual AIDS contact artists living with HIV/AIDS and convince them to put their work into the Archive. In 1995, David Hirsch videotaped an oral history interview with Steed, and Steed assisted with the exhibition The First Ten, an exhibition of the first ten artists in the Archive Project, curated by Ernesto Pujol and Susan Schreiber. (Steed was among the first twenty artists documented for the Archive Project but was not in this show.)
In 1996, protease inhibitors had just been approved and had become more widely available. HAART changed everything; suddenly, it became possible to think of the future, and to see the glimmer of an open horizon.
Visual AIDS continued to use art to educate people about HIV/AIDS, however the work of the Archive Project was pressing at that point in time. In 1996, the Archive was a drawer of slides, and many more boxes and boxes of slides shot by volunteer photographers but not yet labeled. There was still a sense of working against the clock, an urgency to document artists’ work before they passed, and before their work was dispersed by unwitting, or uncaring, family members.
Steed’s focus was always on the artists. Steed told me recently, “I knew this was my reality. My goal was to make it to 38—and I was committed to helping other artists continue to make work in their last chapter.”
Grants to artists during his first tenure were focused on helping artists to live—paying back-rent to avoid eviction, paying utilities bills, enabling artists to get eye treatments and buy glasses. I counted on Steed as a board member who gave advice based on his own lived reality as an artist living with HIV/AIDS.
I think that this true commitment to artists has remained a core principle of Visual AIDS’ mission and projects. There are very few organizations that have the integrity of Visual AIDS, which brings a true artist-centric approach across all its programs and to every aspect of its work.
VA: You've worked with Steed as an artist while you were Executive Director of both Visual AIDS and The Children's Museum of The Arts. Can you describe the projects you've coordinated, and Steed's creative approach?
Barbara Hunt McLanahan: I first included Steed’s work in a small exhibition I curated at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in June 1997, titled Not Sacred. His work was shown alongside Barton Lidicé Beneš, Rebecca Guberman and Michael Slocum. He showed work from the Once Removed series, where he used sharpie pen to delete his own image from childhood family photos. I still find these images to be incredibly poignant. Anyone who has lost a family member knows the hole that they leave in your life, the blank void where once there was laughter, friendship, warmth and love. Steed literally depicts the black hole that you experience when someone close to you dies. By choosing family photographs, the emotion is intensified, as these are the means that we use to remember our loved ones, and to maintain our emotional connection. In erasing himself before his passing, Steed amplifies the waste of his predicted early death.
In 1999, Steed created a large site-specific Road Tattoo for Bodies of Resistance, a major exhibition I curated for Visual AIDS that included commissioned pieces from 17 international artists that addressed representations of the body in the light of HIV/AIDS. Shown at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, Steed created a piece that celebrated his 40th birthday, a day that he had never expected to see. He had created his first road tattoo at Skowhegan while in a residency there, and he wanted to make a more ambitious work. To create the 165-foot long Birthday Knot, Steed worked with all of the hospitals in Hartford to collect the names of the first 40 babies that were born on and after his 40th birthday. The community came together to paint the babies’ names into the Celtic road tattoo, and an interfaith, non-denominational prayer ceremony was held to dedicate the piece on its completion. What was remarkable about this piece was the prevalence of tiny newborns and families with young children at the installation site and dedication ceremony. Recognizing Steed’s mortality and celebrating the new start for 40 babies and families, this piece was a wonderful gathering of families from across Hartford that might normally be disparate, yet they were united in a joyful, universally celebratory, family event – the birth of a newborn. The photographs of the site-specific work were included in the catalogue and the exhibition when it toured to the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000.
In 2017, 18 years later, Steed created a new site-specific work at the Children’s Museum of the Arts. Working with CMA curator Jil Weinstock, Steed proposed a wall and ceiling tattoo that twisted around a long narrow space called The Bridge. His first ceiling tattoo, Steed also chose the contrasting colors of daffodil yellow and poppy red—it was definitely eye catching! Titled Comity, the work encouraged visitors to empathize with others. Steed worked with the children and youth of CMA youth (aged 5-15), asking them to work in teams to consider areas of mutual courtesy and consideration, and then to inscribe them into the lines of the tattoo, before they were painted over, to be absorbed into the piece for the duration of the exhibition. Created after a divisive election, Steed wanted to help young people consider ways that people who might seem different are actually more similar than they first seem. For the teenage participants, in particular, the engagement with the artist and active participation in the installation was a memorable experience.
VA: How have you seen Steed's public art projects work in both a visually interesting way while also creating community?
Barbara Hunt McLanahan: Steed demonstrates a rare sensitivity to the communities who use the public sites that he is invited to work in. He sees the road tattoos as a means of commemoration, communication and ritual—and a way to bring disparate people together. He states a desire to honor sub-groups in society and to give recognition to how important and crucial they are to the wider community.
What is incredible is to watch Steed work his magic with these groups. It’s not easy to be invited into a new location, and to win the trust of the different groups of people who “own” that space, who have histories (sometimes conflicting) and who bring their private lives into each public site. Steed’s genuine commitment to collaboration wins over the harshest of skeptics. My experience of Steed’s work is that he chooses to engage with traditionally “non-arts” communities, creating discussion and dialogue with groups that are not the usual contemporary art audiences. He works from initial research and outreach, to relationship building, slowly developing trust and respect, moving from initial incredulity (“you want to tattoo the road?”), to active participation in creating the tattoo, to shared pride in the finished piece, a communal achievement and collaboration. The work is resonant with the histories of each participant, including the artist, the curator, and the municipal officers who have provided permits.
This is evident in his current work, Geniii Loci, which was dedicated May 1 in West Palm Beach. The longest road tattoo yet, the work goes through City Place—a city center that was built 30 years ago—to North West, the African-American community that was displaced in the mall’s development. Steed worked with elders in the community who wanted to honor the people who kept the community together in a difficult transition and helped to form roots in the new location. Genii Loci is the Latin term used in antiquity to describe the spirits protecting a special place, and the myth that if a spirit protects a place one should walk lightly. In creating the work, during an installation that lasted five weeks, Steed found that indeed he had to tread lightly in an area where there is tremendous racial disparity, and a desire from some to maintain racial inequity. Working with local students, he wanted to encourage them to understand community activism. The final 1.22 mile long work makes tribute to local activists who fought for the African-American community and worked to help the community survive eviction. It is hard, almost impossible, not to be moved by one of Steed’s monumental tattoos that carries within it the heart of the community who made it.
VA: Describe Steed Taylor in a sentence.
Barbara Hunt McLanahan: That’s impossible. Steed is more than a sentence. Steed is generous, tenacious, thoughtful, sincere, empathic, and he laughs a lot. He describes himself as “an unexpected survivor” and he says that he is blessed. He’s older than 38—and that makes me laugh in happiness too.
Barbara Hunt McLanahan joined Children’s Museum of the Arts as Executive Director in 2013, having formerly been the Executive Director of Judd Foundation (2006 – 2013), the Executive Director of Artists Space, NY (2000–2006), Visual AIDS, NY (1997–2000) and Camerawork Gallery + Darkroom, London, UK (1992—1996). Following a BA (Hons) degree in Visual and Performed Arts and a postgraduate diploma in Gallery and Museum Studies at the Universities of Kent and Manchester respectively, she worked as a curator and arts administrator for over 20 years on both sides of the Atlantic.
Steed Taylor's art practice includes public artwork as well as work for gallery settings. His art has been shown around the country including the Bronx Museum, the Mint Museum, the San Bernardino County Museum, and the Neuberger Museum of Art's 2001 Biennial Exhibition of Public Art. Besides extensive showings in the New York metropolitan area, his solo shows include The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Ambrosino Gallery in Miami, Florida and Il Ponte Contemporanea in Rome, Italy. An activist for many years, he has worked with a wide variety of both arts and AIDS organizations including the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Artists Board of Artists Space, Co-Chair of the 21st Century Committee for the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture 1999-2005, Board of Directors for Visual AIDS 1995-1998 and 2010 to 2018 and Board of Directors of Cannabis Cares from 1999 to present. Steed will receive the William Olander Award, a special VAVA presented each year to an individual in the creative arts living with HIV, and is named in honor of the late New Museum curator and co-founder of Visual AIDS.