featured gallery for August 2019


How is history written; how does it form; how can it be interrogated, be revealed as a creation itself, rather than “the” story? ‘Histories’ is more accurate: a plurality of often competing narratives and objectives (subjectively speaking). Inherently contradictory, disguised as truth.

Who decides what is collected, preserved, disseminated?

As the first staff archivist at The LGBT Community Center National History Archive in New York, most of my time is taken up with managing the archives. There’s a lot to do in building on our 27-year legacy as a volunteer-run archive—fundamental work such as writing policy and designing procedures. This behind-the-scenes work informs everything that we have to offer.

One of the more important policies in the history of The Center Archive, now enshrined as we develop our collection development policy, is that we are here to collect and preserve the materials of everyday queers, not the famous or infamous. I use “everyday” with respect and dignity to denote daily lives, daily efforts and actions—with the acknowledgment that everyday work gets things done in our community. Larger institutions have the will and the budget to secure the papers of big names. We will continue to work on a community level to ensure that the import of everyday lives is not lost.

Loss is an inherent part of time passing, of course. Essentially, loss powers the archives. It’s only when a record (a letter, a photo) is deemed ‘inactive’ (no longer used by its creator) that it becomes archival. Inactivity plus (historical) value is the alchemy of archives. On to a new kind of activity.

But sometimes loss is less useful and more of a plain and simple headache. For example, the absence of provenance documentation: how and why did this thing come to the archives? Provenance, or information about the origins of an item or collection, is everything in archival practice; it dictates how collections are formed, arranged, and accessed. If you can’t tell the story of the records, how do you tell any story?

The provenance of The Center Archive, and the majority of its collections, can be summed up in four letters: AIDS. In 1990 there were, certainly, countless reasons our community’s works and lives and efforts deserved preservation. But the AIDS crisis is the undeniable engine behind the founding of the archive, and the donation of materials by friends and loved ones that became our founding collections.

It was through this lens I began to take a closer look at the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry. The Artist+ Registry also captures the everyday: it is open to any artist who lives or lived with HIV. It’s a place of tribute, of support, of visibility.

I’m interested not only in the incredible works and lives represented on the Artist+ Registry, but in the way the registry itself is set up, what information its very structure gives us (or doesn’t).

Take Kathryn McGuinness, who created paintings, sculptures of styrofoam and glitter—lively works, playful in their colors, shapes and materials, but harmonious and peaceful, too. McGuinness’s works and biography were contributed posthumously by her sister Shirley.

Louis Fulgoni’s work, in contrast, shows simple lines and only a little color in his figurative sketches. (I especially appreciate that the sketchbook page, with spiral binding, is apparent in its object-ness.) His is a tribute page, created by Visual AIDS, like the page for John Sex—and talk about color. The East Village boylesque star hardly counts as an unknown, but I’m moved by the combined effort of Visual AIDS and photographer April Palmieri to represent him on the registry.

Photographs as a format strike me, straddling the line between a work of art (purposely created) and an archival record (organically created). Tatiana Mazur’s Masha captures a moment in time (dusk? dawn?), the figure, Masha, rising into the sky with the streetlamps. Mazur’s profile lacks a biography or statement: it could be called incomplete, but then, notice the Facebook link. Social media as metadata.

julie blair’s Assignment Notebook (excerpt) was drawn, intriguingly, with gel pen (1999, indeed), but their profile is as empty as the notebook page. I imagine blair and I were dejected suburban seventh graders together. It’s whimsy, sure, but not dissimilar to experiencing a piece in, say, a museum or gallery.

The Artist+ Registry gives HIV+ artists a platform, and visitors an opportunity. One doesn’t have to consider how an artist page was created, but doing so reveals a multitude of origins. McGuinness’ sister cares for her, and her legacy; John Sex has a champion in fellow artist Palmieri; Mazur and blair presumably contributed work themselves, satisfied to let it live without contextual comment. It probably says something about my commitment to documentation that I’m so drawn to profiles without much. But sometimes absence gives us more to dwell on than not.

The loss we continue to endure, this particular provenance, is almost unthinkable. But we must fill in the lines.