In Conversation with Esther McGowan: The New Face of Visual AIDS
Esther McGowan is the newly appointed Executive Director of the art non-profit Visual AIDS. She worked as the Associate Director at Visual AIDS for five years before being promoted to her new position. During her time there she has worked on many different projects such as Day Without Art, the Duets book series, and the annual Visual AIDS benefit Postcards from the Edge, to name a few. I was lucky enough to intern at Visual AIDS and work under Esther, during which she became a wonderful friend and mentor. Esther was kind enough to take the time to interview with me about her new position and what the future holds for Visual AIDS.
Alexandria Deters: First off, congratulations Esther once again on your new position at Visual AIDS as Executive Director. Can you tell me what it has been like for you in the last few months in this new position?
Esther McGowan: Visual AIDS is always a whirlwind, but I love it. Because I had already been with Visual AIDS for five years, my transition into the new position was pretty seamless. The biggest change is that we are growing the staff, so hiring new employees in programming and development became a focus for me and our Programs Director, Alex Fialho, right after I became Executive Director in July. Because we’ve been doing so much in recent years, including 30+ public programs, artist commissions, exhibitions, publications and big national and international projects like Day With(out) Art and LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN, growing the staff is essential, so I’m really excited that it’s happening.
Your first role at Visual AIDS was as the Associate Director under the former Executive Director Nelson Santos, what were some of the challenges and successes in that role?
Visual AIDS has always done a lot with a small staff and in a one-room open-plan office, so getting used to a large number of projects, meetings and deadlines happening every day took a little time. It was really exciting to become part of the Visual AIDS community and get to know incredible activists and artists from multiple generations. Our community definitely has the feel of a family, so it makes coming the office everyday a happy and rewarding experience, even when it’s stressful because there is a grant deadline or we have a big event or project we are preparing. This is not something you can say about most jobs! My biggest challenge was taking over the planning of our big Postcards from the Edge benefit from Nelson, who had been doing it for 12 years. It’s an amazing event, where 1,500+ artists make 4 x 6” original artworks that we sell for $85 each over a weekend in January each year. The event is extremely popular with artists and collectors, but it takes a huge amount of planning and preparation to make it run smoothly. Nelson is extremely organized, so he put really efficient systems in place to make it work the way it does. The “hook” of the event is that many well-known artists like Marilyn Minter, John Baldessari, Jim Hodges and Julie Mehretu make artworks as well as many wonderful emerging artists around the world, and then the works are hung anonymously with the name of the artist only revealed after purchase. We always have a line outside the door before the sale opens on Saturday morning, full of early-bird buyers who think they can spot certain artists work. But all the artworks are wonderful, so everyone goes home with something they love to add to their collection.
Visual AIDS has a very intersectional scope and doesn't just focus on HIV/AIDS in just gay, white, male, cis groups but very inclusive of QTPOC artists as well. Can you talk more about that?
Visual AIDS has always worked with many artists and communities. A lot of the intersectional aspect of our work stems from our Artist+ Archive and Registry of artwork by HIV+ artists. Created by Frank Moore and David Hirsch in 1994, the Archive and Registry houses images of artwork by anyone who makes visual art and is HIV+, and is free of charge. Because all artists can become part of the archive, it has become an amazing showcase for the diversity of artists and art-making around the world and includes artists such as Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe alongside many incredible emerging and self-taught artists. It’s an amazing resource for curators and researchers to discover artists they would never otherwise have seen, and it is the backbone of all of Visual AIDS programming. Because it is part of our mission to support HIV+ artists and their work, we always include a broad range of known and lesser-known artists in all of our exhibitions, public programs, and publications. In recent years, we have also focused programming on issues affecting communities of color, the trans community, HIV+ women, and long-term survivors – all groups that are deeply impacted by HIV/AIDS today. This is an important aspect of our work now and going forward.
"In recent years, we have also focused programming on issues affecting communities of color, the trans community, HIV+ women, and long-term survivors – all groups that are deeply impacted by HIV/AIDS today. This is an important aspect of our work now and going forward."
The latest Day Without Art video project premiered on World AIDS Day on December 1, 2017; can you tell me a little bit about the history of this art initiative and about this year’s video?
Day With(out) Art has been one of our most important HIV/AIDS activism projects since the early days of the organization. In 1989, in response to the worsening AIDS crisis and coinciding with the World Health Organization’s second annual World AIDS Day on December 1, Visual AIDS organized the first Day Without Art. A Visual AIDS committee of curators, writers, and art professionals sent out a call for “mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis” that would celebrate the lives and achievements of lost colleagues and friends; encourage caring for all people with AIDS; educating diverse publics about HIV infection; and finding a cure. More than 800 arts organizations, museums and galleries throughout the U.S. participated by shrouding artworks and replacing them with information about HIV and safer sex, locking their doors or dimming their lights, and producing exhibitions, programs, readings, memorials, rituals, and performances.
During the early nineties we began to work more directly with artists, initiating numerous projects that included: A Night Without Light (the dimming of the New York skyline); Electric Blanket (a nationwide outdoor slide projection with text and images); Positive Actions (an exhibition-competition for a television PSA held simultaneously in three NYC venues); the Broadside Project (distribution of copyright-free text and images by well-known artists targeted to specific audiences, an example of which is the artwork by Glenn Ligon included on the left hand page); and ambitious media collaborations, including AIDS Timeline by Group Material and national televised events. By the mid-90’s, Day Without Art attracted more than 8000 participants throughout the world.
In 1998, for its 10th anniversary, Day Without Art became Day With(out) Art. Visual AIDS added the parentheses to highlight the ongoing inclusion of art projects focused on the AIDS pandemic, and to encourage programming of artists living with HIV. In recent years, we have focused on curating film and video projects as an accessible way to share new work created in response to contemporary issues.
This year’s project, ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, is especially meaningful, giving us the opportunity to work with exceptional artists and filmmakers and encouraging the production on new work on themes that are centrally important to the understanding of HIV/AIDS today. Curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett for Visual AIDS, the video program prioritizes Black narratives within the ongoing AIDS epidemic, commissioning seven new short videos from Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia Labeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, and Brontez Purnell. Each of the filmmakers created work that is incredibly ambitious in scope but also very personal, and the result is thrilling. We held sold-out premiere events with artist and curator talks at the Whitney Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the MCA Chicago, and MoCA Los Angeles, as well as screenings at 116 locations internationally. Now the videos are available on our Vimeo page.
I had so much fun helping prepare and participating in last year’s “Postcard from the Edge”(PFTE) event last year as an intern. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of this event, which takes on January 19-21, 2018. Can you tell me a little more about this year’s “Postcards From the Edge”?
We are currently processing all of the artworks that have come in, and it looks like we may have more artists participating than ever! The event will take place January 19-21, 2018 at Gallery 524, 524 W. 26th Street in Chelsea. The VIP preview party is the evening of January 19th, and is free for participating artists while other guests can purchase tickets for $100 (since it’s a benefit). The preview party is the only chance to see all of the artworks installed together, since we starting selling artworks off the wall starting at 10am Saturday morning. The sale itself is Saturday January 20th from 10am-6pm and Sunday January 21st from noon to 4pm. The sale is free admission, and all artworks are $85. Sunday we have a Buy Two Get One Free sale all day! We will also have a silent auction of larger works on Artsy launching January 8th. And as a special addition for the 20th Anniversary of the event, we are curating a small exhibition of some of the postcard artworks created by well-known artists over the years. Collectors are lending works by Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Kara Walker, Vito Acconci, Christian Marclay, Nan Goldin, Vik Muniz and many many more. It’s really extraordinary to think that all these artists have made original artworks to benefit Visual AIDS!
What are your plans for Visual AIDS in 2018? Are there any new projects that are on the horizon?
2018 will be Visual AIDS 30th Anniversary, so we will be creating public events that look back at our history, like the fact that the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus created the red ribbon, something that most people don’t know since it has become such a ubiquitous symbol for HIV/AIDS all over the world. But while we look at our history, we will also be emphasizing the fact that AIDS is not over, and that the pandemic still continues. In our present political climate, I’m interested in seeing how Visual AIDS can return to its activist roots. We have so much amazing history working with artists like Barbara Kruger, John Giorno, Glenn Ligon and many others to create art-based activism going back to the early 1990s and now feels like the time to revisit that aspect of our work. I’m excited to say we are working with Avram Finkelstein of Gran Fury and the Silence=Death Collective to commission artists to create new artworks that address contemporary issues around HIV/AIDS and can be used to activate public spaces. Our first project will launch this coming June and will be done as an extension of our summer exhibition that focuses on HIV Criminalization.