Keeping the lights on for Day Without Art to create caring conversations

Image: Kenny Scharf paints a mural titled "Hope" with high school students. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. 

(I wrote this post on December 1, 2010.)

Today is Day Without Art (DWA) and World AIDS Day. It is a ripe opportunity to have conversations with your children about this disease, to practice how we help and what we say to people with AIDS or any other serious illness.

Twenty years ago, I led a team of museum educators and community members at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida to create the museum's first event for DWA. 

DWA began a year earlier (on December 1, 1989) as the national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis. To make the public aware that AIDS can touch everyone and inspire positive action, art, and AIDS groups traditionally participated by closing museums and galleries or turning the lights out.

Our Museum education team chose not to turn the lights out.

Yes, we wanted to remember those who died. Even more, we wanted to turn the lights on as a metaphor for opening our eyes and learning about this disease as a way to support those infected and help prevent others from becoming HIV positive.

So, we created an event guided by these questions: 

What can we do to reduce the number of people who will become HIV-positive and help those already diagnosed? 

Who should sit at the table to help us create a program that responds to this question? 

Under the vibrant leadership of Heidi Anderson, many Ringling staff from a variety of departments organized a spectacular opportunity to bring awareness to our State and local community about AIDS. She brought together a diverse group of participants to create the Ringling's Day Without Art program: people with AIDs, medical professionals, teachers, elementary and high school students, Ringling staff and Board members, and other community leaders. 

What was the program they created that day? 

I'm recalling this from memory. To remember those who died (many are artists), we shrouded the life-size reproduction of Michelangelo's David in the Museum Courtyard. (Image credit)

In the courtyard, we staged a concert and presentation for (800) high school students from local schools. People stood up for one minute to make personal AIDS awareness statements. A diverse group participates.

The Museum director, state Governor (Lawton Chiles sends his message to be read), Museum Board Members (Katherine Harris), people with AIDS and their caregivers, the lead singer of AC-DC, a lawyer, healthcare professionals, insurance company owners, policymakers, teachers, students, and others took turns reading their statements.

Earlier in the week, high school students worked with artist Kenny Scharf, friend and roommate of artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, and painted a mural. The theme is hope. "Let's just paint with hope," says Scharf. The mural (see detail above) is part of the Museum's collection.

For either this program or a subsequent one, on the mall of the Museum, which abuts the main road in town, were 873 stakes representing each person known to be HIV positive in Florida at the time. The stakes were colorfully painted by high school students and tags made by art teacher Rona Glazer's elementary students were hung on each. K-2 students wrote questions or messages they wanted to ask and share with people who have AIDS such as, "How are you feeling?" "I want to hug you,"  "What can I do to help you?" "Do you have a baby sister?"

This installation became a front-page picture and story in our local newspaper. During the day, a helicopter flew over and photographed the scene of people reading the tags.

The program was successful in bringing awareness, opening curiosity, and fostering caring responses to people who were HIV positive. However, I recall challenges. For example, during the planning of this program, a county school administrator called and asked me, "What right do you have working with county students on sexual issues?" I was grateful for her question because it gave me a chance to share what the Museum chose to do and why. After listening, I shared our process and wondered how a diverse group of planners could design a program to initiate caring conversations. I invited this person to attend the program and she did.

The program was one of my memorable experiences as a museum educator. After the one-minute messages in the courtyard, a band comprised of students from the Ringling School of Art played. People danced. 

I danced with a man with AIDS. I recall his smile and declaration of hope for his future, even though his day-to-day living was compromised. (My dance partner died the following year.) 

We continued to organize education programs annually around Day Without Art/World AIDS Day at the Ringling Museum until I left the Museum in 1997.