Experience Exchange

Frances Phillips

Co-sponsored by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS and the National Association of Artists Organizations, Friday, October 13, 2000, the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, California

Last fall, the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS (Estate Project) and National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO) sponsored two "Experience Exchange" meetings, one in the East and one on the West Coast. Their goal was " explore how lessons learned by the arts community during the age of AIDS can be applied to other communities of artists.” The exchanges were sponsored by the Getty Grant Program. I was privileged to take part in the West Coast meeting, held at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Patrick Moore of the Estate Project introduced his organization. Begun as a program of estate planning services for artists with HIV and AIDS, in time the Estate Project grew concerned with documenting the work of these artists to preserve and understand a moment in history. The resulting archives, held at the New York Public Library, now may be seen on a Web site. Intended as a document of an historic phenomenon, and recognizing that art's value often is recognized years after a work is made, the collection is inclusive rather than curated and includes a lot of ephemera as well as formal artworks. Moore, along with Roberto Bedoya of NAAO, was interested in hosting a discussion among projects sharing the mission of documenting and preserving art for history's sake. “Experience Exchange” brought together curators and administrators from representative institutions and collections honoring work by artists who are disenfranchised from mainstream commercial gallery and museum worlds, including the Galeria de la Raza and NAMES Project (AIDS quilt) in San Francisco, Watts Towers Arts Center, the Japanese American National Museum, Self Help Graphics, and Black Photographers of Los Angeles. Artists Brian Freeman, Suzanne Lacy, and Kathy Vargas spoke about the function of such collections in fostering new art works and contributing to curators' understanding of cultural contexts.

One participant asserted that such collections are about “preserving the aspirations of a community” through sustaining the personal voices of artists. Ephemera often are valuable tools for understanding the web of connections among artists involved in social and cultural movements, capturing information that otherwise may quickly be forgotten or misinterpreted.

Such work also is daunting. Kathy Vargas, of A Working Artist Space in Texas, spoke of the responsibility to “preserve the load, the weight,” and how “It would be easier to overlook it.” Discussion of the NAMES project pointed out that the power of the AIDS quilt — its immense size and varied content — is also its weakness as so much care and space is needed to preserve it. A further challenge is maintaining an object's intimacy and accessibility as it is protected.

Karen Higa spoke of families whose objects have been collected by the Japanese American National Museum and who may later feel distanced from the objects once they are being preserved by the museum.

Brian Freeman spoke about the value of these efforts when he described research he now is conducting in the Kinsey Archives. There he uncovered work by an amateur photographer who documented activities of lesbian and gay activists in the 1920s, the subject of Freeman's current theater piece. While as art the photographs' value is mixed, as a record of a rarely discussed history their value is profound.

James Jeffrey of Black Photographers of Los Angeles added the importance of “backing up” these collections. His family has been making kodachrome copies of works by Black photographers and sending them to four places around the country so they will be preserved even if there is a natural disaster. He pointed out that few places have the storage facilities to hold things permanently.

Some asked where artists and organizations could turn if they think they cannot properly care for materials. The New York Public Library has provided such a service to the Estate Project. Electronic media offer new opportunities for collecting and displaying these archives.

“Experience Exchange” ended long before we'd exhausted the conversation. It may be the beginning of a larger effort to bring forward new questions about collections and preservation. The discussion is fraught with fascinating and conflicting values for artists, curators, archivists, and institutions, and is ripe for thoughtful cultural policy debate.