LEAD: In what organizers called "the largest event that's ever happened to focus on the AIDS crisis," some 600 museums, galleries and other arts institutions across the United States observed "A Day Without Art" yesterday.
In what organizers called "the largest event that's ever happened to focus on the AIDS crisis," some 600 museums, galleries and other arts institutions across the United States observed "A Day Without Art" yesterday.
The loosely coordinated events -including gallery closings, the temporary removal of artworks from gallery walls, memorial services, performances and educational programs about AIDS - were organized by a group of arts professionals called Visual AIDS. The nationwide observance, which was held on the World Health Organization's second AIDS Awareness Day and is to be an annual event, was called "to make people pay attention to the effects of AIDS on the art world and our society," said Thomas W. Sokolowski, a member of Visual AIDS.
In one of the day's few overtly political actions, nearly 80 people were arrested in Washington for blocking traffic during a demonstration in front of the White House. Those arrested were released on bail, and face fines of up to $250, 90 days in prison or both. Earlier, about 200 demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Park to hear speeches criticizing President Bush for what they called the Government's low level of support for AIDS research and services.
In addition, members of Visual AIDS and other arts professionals met with John E. Frohnmayer, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He had withdrawn an endowment grant for an exhibition about AIDS at the Artists Space gallery in Manhattan last month, only to reinstate it after much public criticism. During the 90-minute meeting, the 25 to 30 participants discussed ways in which the endowment might respond to the AIDS crisis, said one participant who asked not to be identified. Mr. Frohnmayer declined to comment on the meeting.
A Bernstein Prelude
In New York, in a prelude to the day's activities, about 500 people crowded into the lobby and balconies of the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday night for a service at which Leonard Bernstein dedicated a two-minute composition for piano and two voices to "those I love who have died of AIDS." Calling the evening "a half-hour of symbols," he added, "What we do tonight is only a symbolic reaction to threatening and ugly issues."
At the Jewish Museum that evening, about 150 people gathered for "A Call to Healing and Action: A Jewish Perspective on AIDS." The 90-minute program included prayers, music and readings calling for tolerance, action and education about AIDS. "Where there is illness, there is a flaw in the world," said Rabbi Gordon Tucker, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which co-sponsored the program. "Therefore, there is a divine mandate to heal." He added, "Being with those who are ill is part of the healing process."
And William Hoffman, the author of the play "As Is," referred to the AIDS crisis as "days of double darkness" and said that "this is the season of stone." Echoing the sentiments of many who took part in the day's events, he said, "Denial can hurt and kill."
Among yesterday's many symbolic actions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art removed Picasso's 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein for the weekend, replacing it with a somber black-and-white placard about AIDS. While the Guggenheim Museum's plans to drape itself with a giant black cloth were foiled by yesterday's winds, the day's message was graphically conveyed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which distributed about 8,000 postcards by Gran Fury, an artists' collective. The postcard image shows three couples kissing beneath the words "Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do."
Although few Madison Avenue art dealers participated in the observance, many downtown galleries either closed or presented exhibitions or programs about AIDS. At the Henry Street Settlement's gallery, an exhibition called "Images and Words: Artists Respond to AIDS" opened, and a videotape by Phil Zwickler and Rosa Von Praunheim about artists' responses to AIDS called "Silence Equals Death" was given its premiere at the PPOW Gallery.
New York commuters were also made aware of the observance, as posters spelling "AIDS" were installed by the Public Art Fund in about 3,000 subway cars, and the Gay Men's Chorus performed in Grand Central Terminal during the evening rush hour. And in one of the day's few fund-raising events, 750 people paid up to $10,000 each to attend an evening masquerade benefit, at the World Financial Center, for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Draped in Black
Many museums throughout the country displayed panels from the Names Project Quilt memorializing people who have died of AIDS. Several colleges - including the University of Maine, Southern Illinois University and the University of Wisconsin - draped artworks with black fabric, and in Pasadena, Calif., the artist Keith Haring completed a mural at the Art Center College of Design that he described as having "viral-type images."
Artworks were shrouded in offices in Lincoln, Mass., by the De Cordova Museum, which had lent them to the corporate subscribers; photographs about AIDS care givers were exhibited at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, and a poetry reading was held at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, in the gallery where the museum is exhibiting photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS earlier this year.
Many participating institutions also distributed AIDS-information pamphlets and forms for a census of artists and arts professionals who have died of AIDS. This so-called Witness Project was started "to try to measure this unquantifiable loss," said Jerry Saltz, a writer who organized the census with Simon Watson, an art dealer.