Amy Sadao at (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability

On August 22, 2013, Visual AIDS along with the Pop Up Museum of Queer History and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, held a public forum entitled, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability. The event was recorded and transcribed. Panelists we invited to present a short statement about their work related to AIDS, art, and representation. Below, Amy Sadao shares her vision of what institutions can do to better represent the ongoing impact of HIV/AIDS.

Hi, I am Amy Sadao. I’m currently the director of the ICA at the University of Pennsylvania. But, I was formerly the director, for 10 years, at Visual AIDS, so it’s amazing to be back in this room and it makes me very home sick and very heart sick because I have really only been at ICA for a year and Philadelphia is a new town for me.

I think what Edwin and Karl were speaking about—the way in which institutions really are conservative—that’s something I know. I’m the director and I’m the visionary for this museum, which has been a pretty radical museum if you look at its 50-year history. It’s non-collecting, it's very much a Kustahal. And I think they have never shied away with having curators and interim directors, like Judith Taunembaum, from exploring the intersections between social and political histories and what is happening in contemporary art.

That said, it’s still a learning curve for me and—I’m just speaking honestly because I feel like I am home—that it’s very much…I’m unsettled on how to adjust to working in a contemporary arts museum, which has a much broader mission than what we were doing at Visual AIDS, which was, you know, to continue to utilize contemporary art just to keep it talking, to provoke dialogue, and to really push. And that’s what we did everyday. And everyone who came into the office, and everyone who gave $5 at Visual AIDS was like, " Why aren't museums doing more,” and, "Why aren’t they…?” And we were just like, "Wow, you know, really? You’re just going to do things on World AIDS Day? That’s it?” You become this weird tokenized thing. So, it’s a challenge for me to have a broader scope. Not every show we’re going to carry at ICA is going to have to do with HIV/AIDS, and at the same time, to not lose the thread either. I believe—and I know this from years of working with artists, and young writers, and art historians, and, you know, all the people who really trained us, and all the people who have come before us—that the historical impact of HIV and AIDS on our cultural field pervades so much and it’s just not really opened up for discussion.

I just have a couple of examples; one was a show that was on, that was scheduled before I came. I have to give the credit to my predecessor, and to the fantastic independent curator Stamatina Gregory for curating an exhibition of the late artist American photographer Brain Weil, who was also one of the founders of the first harm reduction (centers) and needle exchanges in New York City, which eventually became CitiWide Harm Reduction. So, contextualizing Brian's six or seven series of documentary photography—his AIDS series being one of the most well-known—looking at all of these different sub-cultural things he was doing, and pushing it up against a time. In the late 80s / early 90s, his contemporaries were really the Picture Generation. And so why?

So what I am trying to say is exploring and allowing the curators (and the programming and the dialogues we had) explore why—perhaps aesthetically—how HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS activism impacted this artist's work and his aesthetic choices. Did he find the Picture generation too cool? And not be invested so much in direct documentary work but having to have a relationship. The photographs he took really came out of stories he wanted to tell and people he wanted to meet. That was true in the Hasidic communities, or with HIV/AIDS/safe sex workers internationally, with IV drug uses, and with transgender people in the Midwest (which were his last four series).

And the other thing I was just thinking of, some examples perhaps not only from ICA but other places that would mix in and give credit to the impact of people living with HIV, people who lost to AIDS, and the artists’ works that reckon with the crisis, are a lot of story telling that happens in the museums. I’m thinking particularly of Bennett Simpsons’ exhibition Blues for Smoke. When it came from Los Angles to the Whitney Museum, there was a program that Bennett asked Gregg Bordowitz to put together and it was artists and performers reading the works of gay black men, many of whom were dealing with HIV/AIDS, folks like Marlon Riggs who died of AIDS. And it was incredibly moving—in a really tight room, just like this—but it also put a spin on these ideas around blues as an aesthetic and the ideas around loss and moving from a place of mourning into a celebratory space, and it also brought back the voices of people from ‘89, ‘92, ‘96. And that in some ways was like getting together a community panel or something; giving it back to the people who wrote these stories at the time.

And that was also something that ICA did on our World AIDS Day event when we asked Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka as part of not only fierce pussy, as a lesbian visibility project, but also as New York ACT UP-ers, to come and make a presentation in advance of screening Jim and Sarah's film, which we ended with a Philly film, Che Gossett's film, because Philly ACT UP was like not hearing it like, “Oh, great, ACT UP NEW YORK…”.

Joy and Carrie, one of the things they brought was stories from artists and activists, both living and those who passed—David Wojnarowicz, Frank Moore, or Mark Harrington—about the crisis. And I think filling the museum with those stories and those voices really gave rise to a different type of conversation. So that is what...thank you.

Download the full transcript at: (re)Presenting AIDS transcript