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Visual AIDS is an organization filled with legacies—the legacies of artists, the legacies of the AIDS activist movement—and there is also an amazing legacy of leadership. When I became Executive Director in 2017, I was honored to follow in the footsteps of strong leaders while becoming part of a powerful network of support. When my appointment was announced, I immediately received a phone call from Visual AIDS’ first Executive Director Patrick O’Connell, telling me he knew I would do a great job. It was a deeply meaningful moment.

One of my most valued mentors was the incredible Barbara Hunt McLanahan. She was energetic, ridiculously smart and always joyful. I could count on Barbara for the most perfect, spot-on advice in any circumstance. And I could always count on her to make the time to give that advice, something that doesn't always happen in our frantic world. Her loss is keenly felt by those she touched in her personal and professional life.

Everyone who knew her has at least one “Barbara story” they like to tell, so I created this post to try to collect some of the memories in one place. Below are written tributes from some of the people who knew her, as part of the Visual AIDS family and beyond. If you would like to add a written tribute to this post or share digital photos of Barbara, please email me at [email protected]. I’m grateful to everyone who contributed.

Esther McGowan
Executive Director, Visual AIDS


AMY SADAO:

Barbara liked to say that I took her to her first American McDonald’s meal. It was probably a meeting. Artist Carol Sun introduced us, asking us to curate the last GODZILLA, Asian American Artist Network, show at the gallery at Parsons. That show included Yun-fei Ji, Paul Pfeiffer, Lynne Yamamoto, Carol Sun, Barbara Takenaga and others. In our first meeting Barbara said, “I’ve been a curator for many years. I have many shows with my name attached. You should be the curator of this show. You need to get your name on it. We’ll do it together but you be the curator, Amy.” I didn’t feel this was right, though it was more generous and wise than I realized at the time. We co-curated the exhibition, Fermented. We liked it so much we printed up business cards as a curatorial partnership, “A to B Curating.”

I fainted at Barbara’s wedding. Wearing a debatably purple or lilac shantung bridesmaid dress. I remember looking up and seeing Barbara’s face surrounded by her white wedding dress. She said, “Amy are you all right?” I remember mumbling something about going on with the ceremony and also to get Joy Episalla to grab the chuppah pole I was holding when I went down. I didn’t want the chuppah that was a work of Frank Moore’s to get messed up. I sweated through my dress and so attended the reception in a Hong Kong Ice Cream T-shirt. The yellow one with the cartoon dragon monster on it.

When Barbara was readying to marry Michael, she converted. She told the rabbi, “You know I don’t believe in god.” The rabbi was cool with that.

More Barbara trivia (since somehow it’s more important than a stable narrative):

1. Barbara and I once took Taylor, her sister-in-law, to Journey to Mars, a tourist trap restaurant down by where Siberia used to be in midtown. We went to Mars. They serve hamburgers on Mars.

2. At Frank Moore’s memorial, Barbara compared him to Princess Di. She stayed up all night to watch one of the royal weddings. She used to work in a champagne bar to supplement her income while she was directing Cameraworks in London. She loved to dance.

3. When Barbara was at Artists Space and I was at Visual AIDS, we used to fax notes back and forth. She told me about her first director job. It was tough. She would go to the thrift stores and buy old tea sets. When she got fed up, she’d take the tea sets out to the patio with a hammer and smash them to bits. I think this is brilliant advice for leaders.

4. Barbara didn’t believe in asking artists to donate existing works of art to benefit arts organizations. “Artists get asked to support everything, it’s too much.” So she started Postcards from the Edge (Visual AIDS) and a Night of A Thousand Drawings (Artists Space) and asked artists to make a drawing or a postcard-sized work. This seemed a little more fair.

5. Once at an Artist Space benefit she had these “chicken fillets” that went in her bra, upping her cleavage. She spent all night looking beautiful and telling everyone she was wearing chicken fillets. Another benefit she had a giant mosquito bite under her eye. She wasn’t bothered and was still the most radiant person in the room.

6. Barbara introduced me to Frank Moore, Copy Berg and Dub Williams, Geoff Hendricks and Sur Rodney (Sur), Stefanie Nagorka and Mimi Nagorka (who was our intern at Visual AIDS during the NYC blackout), Rebecca Price (who introduced me to Dean Spade), Joy Episalla, Joy Garnett, Carrie Yamaoka, Choire Sicha, Nick Debs, Bill Cullum, Eric Rhein, Steed Taylor, Christian Rattenmeyer and Cay-Sophie Rabinowitz (who helped me stay in Kassel for the first Documenta I attended), John Melick, Antoine Vigne, Allan Schwartzman, and Chris and Liz Apgar, Anne Ellegood, and so many others. She and Stefanie were on the board of Visual AIDS when they asked me to be the interim director. So technically, Barbara got me my first full time director job. When she was at the Judd Foundation she took me to my first trip to Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach. We crashed some parties and stayed in a motel with no running water. She brought 8-9 pairs of shoes. Another lesson.

7. Barbara and her parents and I went to Venice one year for the opening of the Biennial. B rented an apartment. We gave her folks the master bedroom and shared a room with twin beds. We spent one night all night trying to catch the mosquitos.

    It’s a fact that I wouldn’t be who I am without Barbara Hunt McLanahan. She was my mentor and my friend. Words can’t convey how much we miss her. The world is poorer today.


    NICK DEBS:

    Barbara Hunt McLanahan arrived in my life in 1995 (‘96?) when I and other Board Members of Visual AIDS were interviewing her as a possible replacement for myself as Executive Director of that organization. At the time, I was not very sanguine about finding anyone who either could, would, or should take the job.

    But never mind all that. The minute she walked into the room, everyone there, myself included, fell madly and deeply in love with Barbara. She was that sort of soul. Upon meeting her, I realized, “oh, ok, that’s fine this person not only can handle the situation but will enjoy handling the situation and will get the best out of others who are attempting to handle the situation but who are maybe not so good at it. Anyone who doesn’t love this woman upon first meeting and who won’t do exactly as she says has the discernment of a slug, and should be shunned.” I think I said something like that out loud, or somebody else did, and thank goodness she accepted the job and rejuvenated the organization at a very critical point in the pandemic, making the services offered by the organization broader as to its community base, and more various as to content.

    Barbara was brilliant as a professional person, as anyone who had the privilege of working with her realized right away. For those of us who were lucky enough to spend even a bit of less formal time with her, that brilliance was an entree into the very very beautiful, rich, joyful, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, and always always kind and loving heart of a friend without peer, a loving and lovely wife, an adoring mother, and I hate to use the term but a filial daughter and sister. A genius. A good-time Charlie. A Napoleonic strategician. An ace manager. A Cracker Jack dancer. The Hostess with the Mostest. The best buddy. Light. Life. Love.


    STEED TAYLOR:

    I met Barbara interviewing her for the Executive Director position at Visual AIDS; she was the exact person we hoped we would find. Barbara’s keen mind, coupled with a generous and open heart, seasoned with a heavy dose of can-do gumption was this amazing, generous and funny ace of a person. To say the least, Barbara cast a long shadow for Visual AIDS. She gathered momentum and focus for the organization which propelled it to what it is today. Through her career, her talent and largesse were pivotal for other arts and AIDS organizations, museums, art spaces, foundations, boards, committees, funders, artists, more artists and me.

    One of the last times I had a lengthy conversation with Barbara was at the Children's Museum of the Arts when I was making an installation for them. I was there late and Barbara had just finished a productive broad meeting. We sat, talked and laughed for 45 minutes until she was pulled away. A few days later she wrote me a lovely unexpected note about my artwork gently challenge people's perceptions, connecting with people from diverse walks of life in ways that are accessible and inspires others to open their hearts and minds. I can’t help but think this touching description applies to Barbara and her career as well. She helped opened my eyes wider and grew my heart larger and I am deeply indebted to her for it.


    WILLIAM CULLUM:

    I met Barbara when I was the first to interview her for the director job at Visual AIDS. I couldn't believe our luck. She ticked all the boxes. Smart, committed, experienced. VA was her first job in this country having just moved here from her native Britain. It has been a privilege to have known her all these years. I missed out on her battle with pancreatic cancer this last year, having my own health issues to deal with. I regret that. My heart goes out to her gorgeous daughter, Jade and her wonderful husband, Michael.


    ANTHONY AZIZ & SAMMY CUCHER:

    Despite the months that have passed, it is still inconceivable to us that Barbara is no longer with us on this plane of existence. We rage at the thought that such as force of nature as Barbara was is now extinguished and we have only remembrance as a way to get closer to her, to feel that our connection has not been completely sundered, that we can still hold close to us her inimitable spirit.

    We were fortunate to meet Barbara back in 1994 in San Francisco, when she and Suzy Kerr were traveling the world meeting artists thanks to a grant from the UK Arts Council. How lucky we were that they decided to pay us a studio visit, never knowing that that encounter would flourish into a friendship lasting 25 years. By 1997 we were all now living in New York and Barbara had brought the full force of her talents as executive director of Visual AIDS. These were times when we were all still recovering from the worst years of the epidemic, people were still dying in spite of the newly arrived promise of anti-retroviral drugs, stigma around the disease was still prevalent in all corners of society, rates of infection were still surging all around the world. Barbara understood the vital importance of the mission of Visual Aids to both give assistance to artists suffering from the ravages of the disease as well as archiving and maintaining alive the work and the voice of all those artists that had succumbed. It was Barbara who started “Postcards from the Edge,” one of the most successful and creative fund-raisers in New York City, which in typical Barbara fashion was a democratic, socially participatory, and fun event that involved not only the contributions from countless artists, but one that drew support from galleries and players at all levels of the art-world; today, 21 years later, it continues to attract huge crowds and is a much anticipated event. We are proud to say that we were part of that first iteration, in 1998, and have been donating ever since.

    Barbara went on to lead with energy and vision many other artistic institutions in the city, but none is as emblematic of her character and her spirit than what she accomplished at the Children’s Museum of Art. For Barbara art was an essential right that should be enjoyed and pondered upon by all in society, and she understood that the love and understanding of art must start at a young age and that children should have access to it and make it a subject of their study and interest no matter from which economic or social background they came.

    Barbara was incredibly generous, gregarious, loving, fun, and her smile almost walked ahead of the rest of her body, announcing that soon we would be sharing her magical presence.

    Many of her friends and colleagues will have a lot more to say of Barbara’s professional accomplishments, but we wouldn’t be true to her memory and our own history with her if we did not mention the countless hours we spent dancing together in many of the city’s clubs. The dance floor was Barbara’s natural habitat, where all the qualities of her personality would be transmuted into motion and we could share a communal space of joy and feeling that transcended words.

    We love you Barbara, we miss you every day, --and every night too, when we still (very rarely) manage to make a few moves on the dance floor. You will always be there with us, smiling and laughing with us, under the disco ball.


    ALBERT VELASCO:

    I feel honored and privileged to have known Barbara and worked with her at Visual AIDS and the Children's Museum of the Arts. She was a passionate, bold, fearless leader and kind, compassionate and empathetic friend. I could write pages about how Visual AIDS and knowing and working with Barbara impacted and changed my life. Visual AIDS and the other institutions that blossomed and grew under her loving nurturing and leadership will continue to be a testament and tribute to her life and devotion to make a better, more colorful, fun and united world. She'll live forever in our hearts and minds. Thank you Barbara.


    ERIC RHEIN:

    Barbara and I had a mutual love of hummingbirds, those seemingly delicate-yet-resilient creatures which the Aztecs believed to be the reincarnations of warriors.

    Barbara came into my life, and the directorship of Visual AIDS, in the pivotal year of 1997—just as I (along with other artist members of Visual AIDS) was adjusting to a renewed vitality from the effectiveness of the recently introduced protease inhibitors. Many of our contemporaries had already died, and others were still quite fragile.

    We met amidst the artworks and ephemera of the Visual AIDS exhibition A Living Testament of the Blood Fairies, at Printed Matter—and Barbara was fresh from England. I was struck with her immediate engagement with me and with the exhibition, with her clearly recognizing the rich esthetics and historical importance of the art about AIDS which surrounded us. She didn’t know that, a year earlier, I’d been gravely ill, nor how profoundly healing her participation in my life would be through the years to come.

    As director of Visual AIDS, Barbara married her insights into the complexities of the art world (which often stigmatizes HIV and AIDS-oriented projects) with her deep understanding of the inherent value of the work of us artists who live with HIV. I don’t know how I would have survived AIDS without my relationship with my artwork, nor without honestly including my status when exhibiting it. Barbara supported all of this: she was a partner and friend, nurturing and affirming.

    When Barbara assumed the directorship of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, she and curator Jill Weinstock included six of my wire hummingbird drawings in their first exhibition, Tweet. This, coming so many years after her time with Visual AIDS, seemed to be Barbara saying, “Come on Eric—Lets Fly!


    SUR RODNEY (SUR):

    Barbara was inspired to become the Visual AIDS Executive Director after seeing a show the late Frank Moore, Geoff and I curated for Visual AIDS that was mounted at Artists Space and Printed Matter at DIA. She really set Visual AIDS on a remarkable course that left an indelible mark finding us Amy Sadao as someone to take up her reins before taking up a position as the Director of Artists Space before moving on to the Donald Judd Foundation, and setting it on good footing before taking up the position as Executive Director of the Children's Museum of the Arts' in SoHo, a job she loved because she was able to fully engage with the arts and artists with the programming and exhibitions she organized. She loved the arts and artists loved her. And now she's gone and I know nothing more. I think of her daughter, still young, maybe a tween or teen by now? And then her spouse now left alone. What an incredible loss on so many fronts and the effects of her absence will be felt deep and wide.


    JULIA BRYAN-WILSON:

    When Barbara was at Visual AIDS, she embarked on curating a very ambitious show about the ongoing global HIV/AIDS pandemic, Bodies of Resistance, and wanted to create an equally thoughtful scholarly catalogue. She invited me to co-edit the book with her and to co-author its introduction. I was extraordinarily grateful that she took me seriously (I was still a young graduate student), and I eagerly said yes. It was among my first publications, and it was my first co-authoring experience. We had such an easy collaboration, tossing ideas back and forth, building on each other's knowledge -- little did I know that it might not always be this way! Barbara was so generous, so smart, so crackling with good ideas. The show was groundbreaking in many respects, not least for its international scope and its careful consideration of medical inequalities and the racialization of the pandemic. Opening in Hartford, CT in 1999 and then touring to Durban, South Africa, it was the first major exhibition about HIV/AIDS in a full decade.

    The book included original essays by Gregg Bordowitz, Richard Meyer, and Simon Watney, and was designed by Joy Episalla of fierce pussy. Now, some twenty years later, I look through this diminutive but dense publication and clearly see the tremendous contributions she made as an advocate, and administrator, and an activist. She will be greatly missed. ---- Julia Bryan-Wilson, Doris and Clarence Malo Professor, History of Art Department, UC Berkeley, and Adjunct Curator, Museu de Arte de São Paulo

    JON D'ORAZIO

    Always enjoyed Barbara's wonderful humor. As soon as I walked into an exhibition's reception at CMA, I looked forward to a big hug and our playful communication. She would often disappear into her office to bring me a vodka and cranberry juice, which she also would enjoy. Always a beautiful smile on her face. We conversed about life and joyous situations.

    In the photo above, Barbara and Michael Cady are standing with my painting, CRYSTAL MIRROR: 75 CL 1. They visited my studio to choose a Limited Edition Print for CMA's Annual Benefit.

    Barbara will be greatly missed. A very special being. May she have a joyous enlightened journey,