NYU archivist Brent Phillips noticed something intriguing while helping scholars research the AIDS epidemic at Bobst’s Fales Library & Special Collections. Not only did the Fales Downtown Collection, which chronicles the arts scene in lower Manhattan from the 1970s through the early ’90s, have copious material on AIDS due to its location as the epicenter of the disease roughly 35 years ago, but its contents offered a revealing perspective on the diverse, complex, and often conflicting responses to New York City’s biggest public health crisis in recent memory.

“We always want history to be written clearly in black and white. But what the archives revealed was a palette of grays,” Phillips says. “The archives clearly showed that there were a lot of negative responses toward the AIDS epidemic, but then there was a positive side in the way that people rallied together in this really heroic way of fighting an epidemic while fighting for their lives.”

The realization inspired Phillips to curate positive/negative: HIV/AIDS, a multimedia exhibition looking back on New York City’s AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s.

NYU Stories toured the show with Phillips, who provided context for some of the materials on view.

Picking Up the Government's Slack

photo: a roll of stickers depicting a red hand print and text that reads "the government has blood on its hands: one AIDS death every half hour"

“Our federal government was totally inactive when they should have been addressing AIDS. As for the state and local government, we just had so many other problems in New York at that time—heroin, homelessness, and countless others,” Phillips explains. That period of inaction is reflected in a collection of items—from educational brochures on pneumonia to internal documents and even hate mail—from the archives of various organizations that arose as a result of the government’s initial lack of response to the AIDS crisis. “We were a city that was just coming out of bankruptcy. We couldn’t put forth millions of dollars toward the disease. Grassroots organizations were started because our government wasn’t doing anything.”

Among them were the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), founded in 1982 as the country’s first community-based AIDS service provider, and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), formed in 1983 to encourage political action. The group held demonstrations and protests demanding a coordinated national policy to fight AIDS. 

photo: American flag poster on which the stripes are replaced by lines of red text reading "our government continues to ignore the lives, deaths and sufering of people with HIV infection because they are gay, black, hispanic or poor. by july 4, 1989 over 55 thousand will be dead. take direct action now. fight back. fight AIDS,"

The Media’s Role

Because AIDS was initially viewed as only affecting certain populations and hardly a threat to anyone outside urban gay communities, the mainstream media was largely silent in the early years of the crisis. When the media did cover the disease, it was often to report on a high-profile death, such as when actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985. In response to the lack of coverage, the Gay Cable Network was established in New York City to show the realities of the crisis—including demonstrations and protests that didn’t show up on mainstream TV. NYU houses all 19 years of the broadcast videos and the positive/negative exhibition features a selection of footage from 1982 to 1994.

When the mainstream media began to devote more time to AIDS, the coverage wasn’t always helpful. Increasing death tolls, inflammatory language, and a lack of knowledge of how the disease operated contributed to widespread panic. “We call it the AIDS epidemic and yes, it was an epidemic once we knew what the cause was,” Philips reflects. “But people forget that until 1984 when HIV was discovered, it was a pandemic because we didn’t know what was causing it or how it was spread. This created an environment of misinformation that led to even more discrimination and stigmatizing of a group that was already largely despised.”

A 1988 ACT UP document lists AIDS buzzwords—such as the vague phrase “transmission of bodily fluids”—that reinforced inaccurate conceptions of the disease for an already alarmed public. Nearby, a 1990 issue of People magazine courts reader sympathy with a spread on “The Last Days of Ryan White,” a hemophiliac who had acquired HIV through contaminated blood at the age of 13. “Ryan White was the poster child for AIDS,” Phillips says. “He was kicked out of schools and he showed that AIDS was not just happening in urban areas but in mainstream America. The media labeled him an innocent victim because he contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion to treat his hemophilia. But that, of course, implied that other people with AIDS were not innocent.”

A 1987 Newsweek article suggests a more universally humanizing approach. The magazine published “A Year in AIDS” spreads—“almost like a high school yearbook,” Phillips explains—with the names, ages, professions, and photographs of people who died of the disease each month. “You could start seeing the wide swath that was being taken out of the American fabric. It put a face on the disease.”

AIDS and Religion

When the Roman Catholic Church, which held that homosexuality was a sin, spoke out against the implantation of safe sex education in New York City public schools, ACT UP responded with the “Stop the Church” protest inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989.

“Members began standing up and chanting during the mass, which was probably the most heated thing that ACT UP did,” Phillips says. (The group also shut down Wall Street and Grand Central Station on multiple occasions, and famously stormed the National Institute of Health—a video recording of which plays in the exhibit.) “But there was a big schism that happened within the gay community over this protest because it was in a church and because taking the Eucharist and dropping it on the ground was the height of sacrilege and blasphemy.”

Not all religious groups followed the Catholic Church’s lead. Judson Memorial Church, for example, offered workshops and medical resources for those living with AIDS. And a 1987 educational outreach poster aimed to correct popular misconceptions of the disease with the reassurance: “Communion Cup Will Not Communicate AIDS.”

Artists Respond

short haired man in makeup, white earrings, black elbow-length gloves, and a black ball gown with gold lettering printed on it

Among the exhibition’s highlights is Hunter Reynolds’s 1994 “Patina Du Prey’s Memorial Dress,” a full-length ball gown prominently displayed alongside a video of the artist in the dress as part of the accompanying performance piece.

“Hunter Reynolds asked the public to submit names of people who had passed away from AIDS and he put the names of 25,000 people lost to AIDS on a black silk ball gown,” Phillips says. “There were multiple dresses, but this is the one that’s in the best condition because Hunter would wear the dress as a costume. It creates a rather powerful piece, putting names out there.”

Prolific artist David Wojnarowicz was also well known for his art and activism around the gay community and the AIDS epidemic, and it’s one of his pieces that Phillips finds most poignant: a collection of answering machine tapes labeled “time period of Pete’s death, phone machine.” They date from the week Wajnarowicz’s close friend and mentor, photographer Peter Hujar, was in the hospital dying from AIDS.

“It was Thanksgiving week and basically it was one phone call after another just saying, ‘Hi David, this is so-and-so, we’re going to the hospital because Pete wanted us to bring a razor today’ or ‘Oh, we didn’t go because yesterday he said that he was tired and wants a break,’” Philips says. “Then it gets to the last phone call and it’s somebody asking, ‘What time is the memorial?’ ”

photo of a museum gallery: small television showing a man's face, eyes closed, next to a framed photo of a quilt on which is printed "Peter Hujar, 1934-1987"

“What struck me is that there was no emotion in their voices—it could have been something mundane they were speaking of. There was so much death that it became very matter-of-fact. So to me it’s a document like no other because nothing is more immediate than this primary source material for visitors to be able to listen to.”