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The AIDS Memorial Quilt Is Heading Home to San Francisco

The groundbreaking community arts project has long been under the stewardship of the Atlanta-based NAMES Project Foundation

Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt numbers more than 50,000 panels that honor the lives of some 105,000 people who died of AIDS. (Photo by Rommel Demano/Getty Images)
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In 1985, gay rights activist Cleve Jones set out to commemorate the 1,000 San Francisco residents who had succumbed to AIDS to date. After an annual march in honor of former mayor George Moscone and openly gay politician Harvey Milk, both of whom were assassinated in the city in 1978, Jones asked the crowd to write the names of lost loved ones on placards and tape the cards onto the San Francisco Federal Building. To Jones, the pastiche of names looked like a quilt—and so the idea for a larger memorial was born.

“I couldn’t shake the idea of a quilt,” Jones later wrote. “My friend Joseph and I started making quilt panels. We made a list of 40 men whom we felt we had known well enough to memorialize, and we began painting their names on blocks of fabric.”

As word of the quilt began to spread, people from cities hit hard by the AIDS crisis—including Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York—began sending their own panels to a workshop Jones and his fellow activists had set up in San Francisco. Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt numbers more than 50,000 panels honoring the lives of some 105,000 people who died of AIDS. As Lauren Messman reports for the New York Times, the quilt will soon head from Atlanta back to San Francisco, where it first originated more than 30 years ago.

The NAMES Project Foundation, which was established in 1987 to care for the quilt and its associated archives, has been headquartered in Atlanta since 2001. But in a ceremony held at the Library of Congress this Wednesday, Julie Rhoad, president and CEO of the foundation, revealed that the quilt is scheduled to be transferred to the National AIDS Memorial, which sits within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Organizers plan to house the quilt in an “Interpretative Center for Social Conscience” built on the 10-acre national memorial site, according to NPR’s Richard Gonzales.

An archive of more than 200,000 items associated with the quilt—among which are biographical records of the commemorated individuals, photos, correspondences and news clippings—will be relocated to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center next year. The goal is to eventually make the records digitally available to the public.

“This decision has been part of the long-term planning and vision of the NAMES Project to transfer the care of The Quilt, its related archival collections, and programs to new institutional partners, and in doing so, secure not only the legacy of The Quilt, but also its ability to teach for generations to come,” the National AIDS Memorial says in a statement.

The H.I.V./AIDS epidemic arose in the United States during the 1980s. By 2004, the disease had killed nearly 530,000 people. Although great strides have since been made in treating H.I.V., approximately 1.1 million people in America live with the disease today. Worldwide, around 770,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2018 alone.

The AIDS memorial quilt made its dramatic debut in 1987, when it was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. More than 1,900 panels were arrayed across the landmark.

“Later that day, fellow organizer Mike Smith and I stood in a cherry picker 20 feet above the ground and watched as people made their way along the canvas walkway grid that contained the quilt panels,” Jones recalled. “Only the reading of the names and the sound of people weeping broke the silence around us. We were exhausted and overwhelmed by the beauty of the quilt and the horror it represented.”

The project was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and as the quilt has continued to grow, sections of it have been displayed around the world. In 2013, Smithsonian Institution volunteers created their own panel, which was placed on view in the courtyard connecting the American Art Museum with the National Portrait Gallery.

“I feel very strongly that this is perhaps one of the most democratic memorials in existence,” Rhoad tells Messman of the Times, “because it’s literally made by the people for the people they love.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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