Photo: Allen Frame

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Patrick O'Connell, who served as the founding director of Visual AIDS from 1989 to 1995. Patrick passed away on March 23rd.

Read the New York Times obituary here.

Patrick became involved in Visual AIDS in 1989 through the planning for the first Day Without Art. A grant from Art Matters the following year allowed him to become Visual AIDS' first paid staff member. Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization. A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world.

"We were living in a war zone," Patrick reflected in a 2011 interview, "but it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about. Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression."

The 2013 documentary Let The Record Show (directed by Demetria and Rebekah Dewald) features an interview with Patrick alongside others who engaged in groundbreaking AIDS activism in the early days of the pandemic. The documentary is available to stream for free here. In 2015, Patrick reflected on the legacy of the Red Ribbon on the podcast 99% Invisible, available here.

In addition to his work with Visual AIDS, Patrick also served as the director of Hallwalls in Buffalo from 1977–78, served on the board of the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO), and was an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts AIDS Working Group. In 1999 Patrick received an honorary Doctorate from Trinity College for his work as an AIDS activist and arts administrator. Patrick was honored by Visual AIDS at the Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards in 2013.

If you would like to share memories of Patrick, please email written contributions and images to



Patrick gave us a place to channel our grief and then told us to act.

Then we did.

He was a great man.


I met Patrick in 1987 when I had a studio and PS1 the clock tower. He was an avid AIDS activist, visionary, creating the Red Ribbon Project. He was a friend and I loved him very much. RIP my dear friend.


Patrick O'Connell, my best friend over the past 30 years, passed away the evening of Tuesday 23 March, and I've been trying to process this emptiness I feel since I found out.

Patrick was born in NYC and grew up in Stuyvesant Town. He received a Jesuit education at Loyola and attended Fordham Prep for high school. He started going to Camp Fordham, a boy’s camp, when he was 4, and he continued to go there for the next 14 summers. He first went for two weeks, and, later, for two more, then, an extra month, until finally he reached the point where “my summer plans were settled for the rest of my life,” (or until he went off to college, which was effectively the same thing). He said he “pleaded with them not to make me go home.” Patrick swam at camp. His father, Ben, belonged to McBurney Y and so during weekends in the winter he also swam there, as well as at the public pool on 23rd St. At Fordham Prep, he played tennis, too. His coach was Pat Rooney, who had a national and international reputation. Patrick was a ball boy at the US Open the last time it was played at Flushing Meadows.

He went to Trinity College, where he was a Classics scholar. He had other, equally distinguished choices for college, but he told me that he went up to visit Trinity on a perfect winter's day, when the Quad was covered w snow, and he fell in love w the beauty of the place. While he was at Trinity, he met the artists Mel Kendrick and Carroll "Tip" Dunham, fellow students who overlapped his years there. He also spent a year in Rome at Trinity's Barberini campus. Back on campus, he was President of PSI-U, his fraternity. He graduated in 1975.

Patrick worked at Artists Space in New York City, then was one of the first Directors of Hallwalls, in Buffalo for a year, before returning to Artist’s Space. From 1976-79, between these two non-profit spaces, he encountered the artists who would become known as the Pictures Generation: Cindy Sherman, Charlie Clough, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, James Welling, and others. (And to support his friends, he often scraped together enough money to buy their art). Artists Space, which was only started a few years before Patrick began working there, quickly became a leading organisation in the downtown alternative arts scene, which also included burgeoning institutions such as the 112 Workshop (later renamed White Columns), and the Institute for Art and Urban Resources (later renamed P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, and which is now PS1-MoMA). This also put him in touch with arts administrators like Helene Winer, (who later started Metro Pictures w Janelle Reiring) , Alanna Heiss, Bill Arning, Philip Yenawine, Roger McFarland, Marvin Heiferman, Alexander Gray, Tom Sokolowski, and others. It was during this period Patrick had a brief affair with Peter Hujar, although he told me “Peter was always showing me his pictures of the catacombs in Palermo; I kept wondering if we were ever going to take our clothes off.”

It was also around the time when he had returned to the city that he was the victim of a horrible gay-bashing; his arm was almost pulled off by a gang of young men. At the hospital it was grafted back on, and he received massive blood transfusions. He always told me that he thought that was how he contracted AIDS; they weren't screening blood back in the late 70s. Patrick lived with AIDS for over 40 years.

In 1989 he became the Founding Director of Visual AIDS. That year, he initiated Day With(out) Art. Announcing it December 1st on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, he was able to get the Met and over 1100 other museums worldwide to participate. That was also the occasion when I first met Patrick.

In 1990 Visual AIDS under Patrick’s aegis unveiled the Electric Blanket project. Created by the Visual AIDS artists’ caucus, which included Allen Frame and Nan Goldin, it was a slide show of images by Goldin, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Brian Weil, and others. It was initially projected on the façade of Cooper Union, and toured—with updates and revisions—throughout the United States and in Russia, Japan, Norway, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, and Hungary.

Working with others at Visual AIDS, Patrick created the red AIDS ribbon. "We were living in a war zone, but it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about. Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression."

If you wore the ribbon or recognised its significance, "it was like Fight Club;" you were saying that you had also been affected by the disease most people preferred not to acknowledge, much less discuss. It blurred the distinction between those who had HIV or AIDS and those who didn't, "because if you were willing to talk about it, it was assumed you had it."

In 1991, Visual AIDS volunteers put a red AIDS ribbon on every seat at the Minskoff theatre before the start of the Tony awards. That evening, Jeremy Irons was the first to step onto the stage wearing a ribbon on his lapel. The impact that ribbon had was powerful. It's a symbol that endures today and served as the progenitor of all the subsequent ribbons worn by people dealing w diseases, such as the pink breast cancer ribbon. The CFDA acknowledged as much when they awarded Patrick and Visual AIDS a special award in 1992, calling the red ribbon a "unifier and a pledge, a profession of love and most of all a promise that we will not stop caring and we will not stop fighting."

In 1999 Patrick received an honorary Doctorate from Trinity College for his work as an AIDS activist and arts administrator.

In 2009, the Met Museum opened The Pictures Generation: 1974-84 exhibition, curated by Douglas Eklund, featuring works by Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Matt Mullican, and Cindy Sherman, from Patrick’s collection.

In 2013, LET THE RECORD SHOW, a film by Demetria & Rebekah Dewald documented Patrick and the artists "who shook the foundation of American culture." Speaking passionately about their private, and highly political journeys, it provided a look at the collective spirit of activism in the face of AIDS.

This is just a review of Patrick's accomplishments. None of it really tells you how sharp and acerbic he was. He struggled with alcohol; he was a friend of Bill for over 35 years. A Coca-Cola, later a Diet Coke bottle was a constant companion. He also smoked like crazy. I once suggested he give up smoking for his health, considering he was dealing with AIDS. He replied "What? I already gave up booze; I've already got a terminal illness; now you want me to give up my last pleasure, smoking, too?!" To which I replied "Go ahead. Light em up."

He had two great loves. He buried both of them. Brian Dunbar died of AIDS in 1985; Jimmy Morrow died of cancer in 2003. For the last 35 years of his life, he was married to Solveig Bjarnadottir, of Iceland and the US; she remained steadfast throughout. His friendships endured. Most of us were his friends for 30-45+ years. He used to tell me "Your friends are your friends for a reason."

He loved Fire Island. He loved Stephen Sondheim. He loved watching tennis, particularly Rafa Nadal. I have no doubt Rafa will sense that Patrick is no longer gazing at him.

We used to go to movies together. We’d see some serious films, but what he really liked were movies and tv shows about vampires and zombies. I don’t think it takes a degree in psychology to analyse why he was drawn to the undead. At one point, we wasted real cash dollars to go see the Twilight movies. There was a moment in one of those movies when Robert Pattinson’s character, Edward, is about to confess to Bella, played by Kristen Stewart: “There’s something I have to tell you…” Before he could deliver the rest of the line, Patrick blurted out loud in the crowded theatre “I’m gay!” and then cackled until he was snorting Diet Coke.

He was constantly telling anecdotes based on his life experiences, but he could never tell a story in a straightforward narration. Instead, his stories meandered all over, leaving a trail of confused, bemused listeners. He took a particularly mischievous delight in sprinkling his stories with first names and making everyone wonder who he was talking about: "OK, I got Cindy (Sherman), but who was Nelson (Oh, Mandela!!).” During his active years, Patrick met a wide range of people: Princess Diana, Penny Arcade, Billie Jean King, Larry Kramer, Patricia Cornwell and, yes, Nelson Mandela.

Having spent so many years in church basements, he had what seemed like an endless supply of sharp quips for any occasion. When I would moan about being single, he told me "You're looking for milk in a hardware store."

I remember a dinner in 2005 for Allen Frame following the opening of his exhibition at Tom Gitterman’s gallery. Patrick admired my bespoke suit w all its secret pockets, and I was admiring his red custom-made John Lobb shoes. We talked w Barbara Nitke about friendships. I remarked that I had had a falling out w a friend who used to be my 8 am phone call, and how much I missed that. The next morning Patrick called me, and for the next 15+ years, Patrick was my 7 am phone call every day, no matter where I was in the world.

I can't begin to fathom how much I'm going to miss Patrick. We spoke last Saturday and had the chance to say some meaningful things. As usual, he said some things that surprised me. Also, as usual, we shared a lot of laughs.

Your friends are your friends for a reason. What I don't understand is why they have to go too soon.


Dear Mr. O’Connell,

I owe you my life! And what a wonderful life it has been so the debt is even dearer.

I grew up in Jersey City and raged in the west village in the 1980’s . If it wasn’t for your hard work and efforts with your red ribbon campaign I would have surely fallen victim to the AIDS Epidemic. Thank you for keeping me safe and allowing me to bloom.

I became an English teacher and have taught students from all over the world how to speak English with a Jersey Accent. ;)

Sending you love on your journey.

You were an extraordinary man thank God you visited our troubled times and healed with your love, hope, compassion and energy.

Always Love,

Rita Ann O’Brien