Can you imagine a day entirely without art? We have long relied on art to make sense of what we struggle to understand. In New York in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic became a previously unimaginable tragedy. The art community was hit particularly hard. Yet in the midst of this global crisis, art museums were doing little to raise awareness and pay tribute to the losses.
In 1989, Philip Yenawine was a member of Visual AIDS, a nonprofit group formed in response to the ongoing crisis. He was also the Director of Education at The Museum of Modern Art, which suffered numerous losses to its ranks. According to Yenawine, the Museum was, “so apolitical, so completely uninterested,” that a public acknowledgment seemed unlikely. He believed that the “sense of urgency” felt by those taking care of and attending the funerals of numerous artists “wasn’t shared” at MoMA. Eventually, Yenawine and Visual AIDS managed to convince the Museum to lead efforts towards the first museum campaign to raise awareness about the effects of the epidemic on the art world.
On the evening of November 30, 1989, Yenawine coordinated and hosted “In Memoriam: A Gathering of Hope” at the Museum, a “call for action in response to the AIDS crisis.” Actress Jane Smith led a collective moment of silence; artist David Wojnarowicz read from an essay dedicated to friends he’d lost. Leonard Bernstein was among the night’s performers. The following day, hundreds of arts institutions across the US turned off their lights, temporarily de-installed or covered up art works, and shuttered their doors. The first Day Without Art coincided with the World Health Organization’s second annual World AIDS Day.
Thirty years later, as the epidemic continues to claim victims throughout the world, I sat down with Yenawine to talk about the inception of Day Without Art and its continued legacy.
Sara Torres was Research Assistant at the Department of Education. She currently is Assistant Professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.