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

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

Today is Day Without Art (DWA) and World AIDS Day. It is a ripe opportunity to have conversations with your children about this disease. It's an opportunity to practice what we might say to people with serious illness.

Twenty years ago I lead 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 begins 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 participate by shutting down museums and turning lights out in galleries. 

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

Yes, we want to remember those who died. Even more, we want to turn lights on as a metaphor for opening our eyes to learn about this disease. We decide that education will be a way to help prevent others from becoming HIV positive.

We create an event with this goal in mind: what can we do to reduce the number of people who will become HIV positive? And, who should sit at the table to help us achieve our goal? People with AIDs, medical professionals, teachers, students, and other community leaders. Heidi Anderson organizes spectacular ways to bring awareness to our state community about AIDS.

What did we decide to do? 

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

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

The Museum director, 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, policy makers, teachers, students, and others take turns.

Earlier in the week, high school students work with artist Kenny Scharf, friend and roommate of artist Keith Haring who died of AIDS, to paint 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 highway 41, are 873 stakes: the number of people who are known to be HIV positive in Florida at the time. The stakes are colorfully painted by high school students and tags made by art teacher Rona Glazer's elementary students are hung on each. On the tags are questions these young students want to ask people who have AIDS: K-2 graders write: "How are you feeling?" "I want to hug you."  "What can I do to help you?" "Do you have a baby sister?"

The installation is a front page picture and story in our local newspaper. Twice during the day, a helicopter flies over and photographs the scene of people reading the tags.

During the planning of this program, a county school administrator calls and asks me a hard question. She asks, "What right do you have working with county students on sexual issues?" I invite this person to attend the program and she does.

I am grateful for the question because it gives me a chance to share what we are doing and why. I explain that the diverse group of community members who designed the program hope to initiate caring conversations. 

After the one minute messages in the courtyard, a band comprised of students from the Ringling School of Art play. People dance. 

I dance with a man with AIDS. He has such hope about living with his disease even though his day-to-day living is compromised. My dance partner dies the following year. 

We continue to organize education programs annually around Day Without Art/World AIDS Day.