Oral History Interview with Amy Sadao, Executive Director, Visual AIDS

Posted September 09, 2010 by Anonymous
Nathan Lee, Curator, Critic and Graduate Student, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
Interview Date: 
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Person Interviewed: 
Amy Sadao, Executive Director, Visual AIDS
Place of Interview: 
New York, NY


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Amy Sadao on June 17, 2010. The interview took place New York, NY, and was conducted by Nathan Lee for the Oral Histories project of Art Spaces Archives Project (AS-AP). This interview was funded by New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

Amy Sadao has reviewed the transcript and has made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.



NATHAN LEE:  So if you can just start by saying your name and maybe a little bit about your background.

AMY SADAO:  Okay. I’m Amy Sadao and I’m the executive director of Visual AIDS. And I have been the executive director here since February 2002, though I had known about Visual AIDS, conceivably, from the time I came to New York, which was around ’89, ’90, as an undergrad. And I came to New York to attend Cooper Union, where I was trained as an artist. And then I worked between— I guess I had intensions to be a curator at that time, when I was graduating art school, since I was not interested in having a studio practice. And I worked with— It seems that a lot of people that I worked with ended up crossing over with Visual AIDS, things that I know now. I worked for Simon Watson, I worked at the Whitney Museum. I did the same things all artists do, with working in design. I worked in social services, as well. And then I went for graduate work at UC Berkeley. It was not in art history. I was told by a pretty prominent curator through the eighties and nineties who was in Yale’s art history program, there was absolutely no way someone with a BFA could get into a PhD program in art history. And the example of people who were doing PhDs— Who told me this? I guess I worked with Godzilla, as well, and curated with them. And then curated with Barbara Hunt, which is another connection to Visual AIDS, who was currently, at the time, which must have been ’95— Barbara Hunt was the executive director here at Visual AIDS and had just moved from London. So we co-curated an exhibition that Carol Sun put us in contact with, with kind of the tail end of Godzilla. It was probably the last Godzilla, which is the Asian American Arts Network.

LEE:  And that was based in the Bay Area?

SADAO:  Nope, it was actually— There were people that went back and forth. And certainly, artists and curators like Yong Soon Min  were coming back and forth. It was primarily a New York organization—Ken Chu, Margo Machida. I mean, I met Barbara Takenaga and Lynne Yamamoto and Paul Pfeiffer and Carol Sun. They started that, and actually lobbied the Whitney Museum. I think that Eugenie Tsai’s appointment, in some ways, was tied to what— And Eugenie was very involved. So it was mid-nineties, early nineties. And you’ll have to go to the records for sort of that story. But curated the Godzilla show. And then appli— was told, actually, by Yong Soon Min of a young curator, art historian who was— Because my focus was going to be sort of around racialized— race and race and ethnicity curatorially, and was told to contact Eungie Joo who was in the ethnic studies program at Berkeley. I don’t know if I did speak with Eungie at the time. But that’s where I went to do graduate work. And I did a masters degree, and then came back to the city, worked for a nonprofit arts organization for a very short stint. Did, like, project management for startups, and again, design work. And then was asked to step in as the interim director here.

LEE:  By?

SADAO:  Actually, by some of the board of directors. I guess again, the crossover between my work in New York and kind of growing up. How do you say? Like just fitting into, feeling like an arts worker, feeling like an arts professional, especially not being a curator and not necessarily being an artist. And so how one defines their work as— I mean, I guess we all fall under the rubric of arts administrators, though that sounds so terrible, honestly. But so many of the artists and people involved in the arts fulltime as work—and I mean that not as pay, but in terms of their lives—so many of them that I met and who, I guess in some ways, really treated me as though I belonged at the table; and who were the first, perhaps, people professional— And I guess maybe it’s just simply— And again, I mean professional not in terms of just like income, but in terms of intention. The first people who sort of dealt with me as a professional arts worker were linked, in a lot of ways, to Visual AIDS. And that may have been— And I speak about Nick Debs and Choire Sicha, Stefanie Nagorka, Geoff Hendricks, Sur Rodney (Sur).

LEE:  And these are people who are part of your social circle and professional circle at the time?

SADAO:  Exactly, exactly. And so it was Stefanie Nagorka, the artist and long-time board member of Visual AIDS—she was actually staff here as intern staff—and Barbara Hunt, who asked me to step in when the organization had gone through a transition and they were without an executive director. And that’s what happened in February, 2002. And then there was a search, and I threw my hat into the ring and was appointed.

LEE:  After you were already working as the interim director?

SADAO:  The interim director, that was one of the projects, exactly, that there would be a search. So over, like, three months, they knew they would need an interim director. And again, we should ask my colleague Nelson Santos to be more— if we wanted to get more specific about that, because obviously, he was in charge sort of, of running the search. Yeah.

LEE:  So when you came to Visual AIDS, what was your sense of it in this moment of transition? In terms of organization, staff...

SADAO:  What was presented to me by the board of directors— And again, it’s— You know, board of directors and also getting to know Nelson. And I had a very quick changeover. Christopher Hogan was the executive director who immediately preceded me. And I believe Chris was here for three years. And then prior to his stint, Barbra Hunt had been here for five years. And she left right at the millennium, to lead Artists Space. There were some board members who had been involved in the organization for quite some time. And those included Sur Rodney (Sur) and Geoffrey Hendricks and Anne Hutchins-Orsi— Oh, my goodness. Wow, this is terrible. The president of the board of directors had had a long stint. And you’ll forgive me; I’ll come back with a name there.

LEE:  That’s okay.

SADAO:  As well as Paul Gunther. And Frank Moore was alive and on the board of directors in 2002. But the organization had lost some essential funding. And I’m not really sure if there was a continual decline in funding, but it was certainly something that pre— I mean, that was in some ways, when I stepped in, that was the hallmark of what I stepped into. Which was I was told by the board of directors, “We’ve lost some major funding. The organization is in financial trouble. You’ll need to redo the budgets.” Which were a completely new task for me. And I was promised by friends like, We’ll help you. We’ll show you how to do budgets. But you know, the story I always tell is that I was told the organization was going to run in the red within the year. And when we redid the budgets, it was, You’re going to run into the red in the next month. So I was advised—again, by Barbara Hunt. And she said, “You know, sometimes it takes— You can do it, but it takes sometimes years to turn an organization around.” And we talked about sort of the life cycle model. Which is kind of a joke, if you talk to other arts— It’s not a joke. I mean, it’s sort of true, but was something that I think the Warhol Initiative discussed when they did the national campaign with a lot of the small arts organizations. And it’s sort of a true— it’s a life cycle model of a nonprofit organization, their start, the birth of it; there’s an immediate rapid growth that plateaus, then there is a decline. And during that decline, it will either die as an origination or it will change course, reorganize and then begin again, a different kind of ascent. So the length of how long that plateau is, the length of when that dip is— And this, obviously, I think for this organization, coincided with a lot of different factors—clearly, exhaustion around HIV and AIDS awareness and a turning away, by the art world in particular, which is where we live, from HIV/AIDS-specific works. And from arts institutions, from artists and funding, as well. So those were all like— that was kind of the atmosphere of what we were working with. You know, I think the bright side of that is having staff and board members who have both historical ties the organization and sort of like they can have a legacy. And then I think that provides an ability to be visionary, as well. And the fact that as a two-person organization—Nelson Santos carried over—the transition was possible. And I think that Nelson’s work as the associate director and really, in some ways, the director of programs, the director of relations with a lot of the artists in the Archive Project, as well as, I guess, his simple integrity and resourcefulness, and our ability to work together well, and I think our interest in seeing it succeed. But it took a long time.

LEE:  Did you have to fund raise, as well?

SADAO:  There is no endowment at Visual AIDS, so absolutely. We raise our budget every year. And yes, so it is— This is probably true of a lot of the other arts organizations, but ours in particular is— You know, the budget was about $200,000 when we came in, or when I came in in 2002; Nelson preceded me by maybe a year. And that was all raised. And that was raised by— I guess it[?] would point out, at that time, the largest single source of funding was a $12,500 annual grant from Horace Goldsmith, so $25,000 over two years. So you can see, I think— It required a lot of work. And that is in a lot of ways. Finding that balance between working on programs that we could manage, fulfilling programs that the organization had been committed to and had been funded to do, and then additionally, looking for new sources of funding. That’s a really difficult thing to do. You can’t ask for funding unless you have programs; and yet you can’t— I’m sort of opposed, I guess at this point, to creating programs based on chasing funding. If you think— It is a continual, I guess— I don’t know, I mean, it’s actually sort of a success, I think, which is how the organization is able to define itself and how the organization is able to define what we are not, as well. So that we were not going to work on educational curriculum; we are not that arts education organization. We’ll work by the presentation of our works to students in classes, but we’re not going to write, say curricula, as much as the ideas. I remember when I first came, there was a lot of funding for education. Educational funding, educational funding. And that’s not what we are, in the same way we’re not a social service organization.

LEE:  Let me ask you very simply, what was Visual AIDS? What kind of organization was it? Because it’s unusual— it’s organized and structured in an unusual way.

SADAO:  Wow, that’s so interesting. I’m just trying to reconcile what the actual mission statement was in 2002. And I’m wondering if I’ve completely lost my mind, that I can’t remember it.

LEE:  Or, you know, just when came, what was your sense of what Visual AIDS did?

SADAO:  There were two projects. And the one that was the most long stan— I mean, the sense of what Visual AIDS was was it’s an arts organization. And it was a visual arts organization that, oh, produced events and exhibitions around HIV and AIDS, and also served HIV-positive artists through the Frank Moore Archive Project, which was then called the Archive Project; it was renamed to honor Frank after he passed. Yeah, so it’s always had— I think it was much more distinctly part of the mission. Or perhaps we did that. That the Archive Project was part of the mission. The Archive Project is a program of Visual AIDS. And it had— I think that there was also— something had changed slightly around the organization, that it was functioning in some ways—and again, we should ask Nelson, who was here—had not been working as directly in the art world, perhaps.

LEE:  The organization was not?

SADAO:  Yeah. And was maybe—  I don’t actually know— I was going to say was working more in social service. I don’t know if that’s true. I really can’t speak to that gap, the years immediately preceding when I—

LEE:  Well, I mean, in the first year that you were here, you had to grapple with the funding issues and the budget issues, sort of in the beginning of your directorship, the sort of early years of doing that. I guess, what was, Visual AIDS then? I mean, you were making exhibitions, events, publications.

SADAO:  I’m losing track, actually, of the timeline there; but we were continuing a traveling exhibition of the Archive Project called Lightbox that was curated by Stefanie Nagorka and Sur Rodney (Sur). So it was a really beautiful and smart way in which to show a 35mm slide archive, which is still the majority of what the Archive Project holds, which is slides. And that was a traveling exhibition. We were working specifically with— These are the continuing things we do, and it was just scaled back in a lot of ways. We continue to give materials grants to Archive member artist living on low incomes. We continue to work presenting, inviting, facilitating research in the Archive Project by independent curators, affiliated curators, artists, researchers, students, people from HIV and AIDS from the medical end, from the social services end, from the activist end, bringing them and enabling, basically, their time in the Archive Project, for the purposes of having them make selections of works there and writing about their selections. We would put those up online. And that’s the ongoing— we call it the web gallery program, is now all archived there. And still, it’s kind of an extraordinary project. So that was one of the ongoing things we were doing. In a lot of ways, it’s just the same things that we’re doing, but we have to chase everything. We had to work on the collaborations and we had to do that kind of outreach when meeting with people—and speaking sort of not about the funding, but really about the programs—people from both HIV and AIDS, people from LGBT concerns and people from the arts world, as well—and that is pretty diverse. The organization functions as a collaborator, in collaboration. And that’s what we were doing.

LEE:  And in way, a kind of catalyst between these worlds. That it’s not strictly an HIV/AIDS organization, not strictly just a general visual art, but you kind of move and connect between these different worlds.

SADAO:  That’s the plan.

LEE:  Yeah.

SADAO:  That’s the plan.

LEE:  It’s the mission.

SADAO:  Yeah. And I think it’s a success of ours, that we’ve made it easier to do. But it’s funny that I’m having such a hard time really tracking what was happening there in the beginning of my directorship.

LEE:  Well, let’s talk about the Archive a little bit, because that seems like that’s one of the backbones of what Visual AIDS— a sort of throughline through it’s various different phases. Can you talk a little bit about who Frank Moore was and how the archive developed?

SADAO:  Sure. Sure. The archive is what we understand to be the largest image library—we used to say slide library, but we are in the process, and hopefully will be more involved with, once we can raise the funds for, digitizing the holdings, which are over 15,000 images of—I hesitate because the numbers are hard for me to be exact on—images by HIV-positive artists. So that includes both artists who are living and working with HIV and artists who have died of AIDS-related causes. And the history there is Visual AIDS adopted this program, which had been, I think, begun by David Hirsh, among other people, as a response in the early nineties, and Visual AIDS adopted it ’94. And it was simply called the Archive Project, at that time. And it was really a response to the deaths of so many artists from AIDS-related causes. The ideas that artists were dying, among other people who were dying, and that their work was being lost was sort of this double tragedy that I think a lot of people who, whether they were artists or archivists or gallerists, changed their lives and made adjustments to take care of not only people, but of people’s legacies. And there’s a quote from Frank Moore, among other people; but there’s a quote from Frank that talks about an artist who had become very ill and had told him, “I was so excited that there was a dumpster outside my studio because I can just throw everything in there and then feel free.” So this kind of loss, this kind of displacement of the record and of people’s careers, people’s contributions, artists’ contributions—the response to that was attempts of archiving. And there were early attempts at videotaping, but it was also simply decided that the standard practice— I mean, these were arts professionals who were involved in doing this. We’re going to start a slide library. And then with the advent of antiretroviral therapies and sort of extended lives for HIV-positive people—for many of them; clearly, not for all of them—the archive changed, as well to sort of become like a living archive. And through that, Visual AIDS provided services and support to artists living with HIV, as well as the estates managing or literally, people managing the estates of artists who have died of AIDS. And those services have morphed, I think, and evolved in the way that Visual AIDS can respond to the needs. But what has remained constant, and I think what the integrity of the project is, is it’s a historical record. And it is a public resource. And it is the only one of its kind. And I think that we are always going to be charged, in some ways, with maybe not an archive along the lines of the New York Public Library or the Fales Library, organizations that certainly collect some of the crossover work of— work that is held here and the historical players from this organization. We’re not that archive. We simply can’t devote those sorts of resources. And I think we have to— Not think, I know we have strategically responded as an organization to distinguish sort of what we provide. And some of that is really making a public resource. So making that work more widely available and—

LEE:  How do you do that?

SADAO:  Again, through inviting people, encouraging people to use the Archive Project and pointing things to that direction, to keeping the membership in the Archive Project as easy as possible and open. That’s something I guess—

LEE:  That’s for artists who are HIV-positive or have AIDS, to apply or to submit work to the Archives, to be part of the Archives.

SADAO:  Exactly. Exactly.

LEE:  Which is an ongoing process.

SADAO:  Yes. That’s one of the parts in which you can say it’s a living archive. But I think that it’s also— It’s an unjuried archive, and that’s sort of an important factor to point out. Recently at a panel that we co-produced with the Fales Library during the Robert Blanchon show, Joy Episalla, a former board member here and treasurer of the Gesso Foundation, which is Frank Moore’s foundation, showed a slide of Frank’s notebooks. And it was this distinction about what the Archive Project would be and why. Why it would be an unjuried archive, and sort of thoughts behind not making qualifications about the contributions of HIV-positive artists. And the fact that it’s an unjuried archive has ramifications. We can’t apply, as far as I understand—and the last time I was looking at them[?]—the NEA funding, because you need to have a curated selection. And it’s this very interesting and rich collection of work. But there are only two distinctions. And that is that the artist is HIV-positive and that they are a working-slash-professional artist. And even those terms—working or professional—have been negotiated through the time. And at this juncture, I think Nelson simply says that if you self-identity as a visual artist and— in the same way that you self-identify as HIV-positive. We’re not looking for anybody’s medical records. And I bring that up simply because a lot of other AIDS organizations require, in a social service model,  that you show your serostatus. So I don’t—

LEE:  Where is it housed? Here?

SADAO:  It’s here. Here, where we are having our interview.

LEE:  In the filing cabinets?

SADAO:  In these filing cabinets, correct. As I just pointed out, the archival-ness of the archive is not on par with an actual archive—a distinction that some archivists have pointed out to us. But I think we are doing what we can with that. And eventually, I think the ideas of digitizing it show, in some ways, our prioritizing access to the works there. And I think that when artists or estates join the archive, it is also a matter of us being clear about what the project is. One, that it—and this is changed, especially with things being more digital and availability online—your serostatus is known. And I think that was not something that people— I mean, I think it was something that people thought about in ’94, but it was not as widely Googleable. So I mean, these are distinctions that we want to think about, in terms of disclosure. And yet it’s also, I think, a political point for the organization to have and for the artists who came into the Archive Project. There’s a lot to think about there. And that’s stuff that through the strategic plan that we’ve been working on in the last year and a half, we have organized.

LEE:  For the archive.

SADAO:  Well, and I mean, have sort of been— The idea of, like, explaining what we do and don’t do with the Archive Project and sort of the limitations of it, and not over-promising, too. I think the idea of having a variety of artists at all levels of their careers or at all levels of background, and with a variety of different, I think, goals for their art, makes it an interesting process. How do you support artists working at so many different levels and artists who have different ideas about how they want their art to function in the world, what they want out of their artwork. And I mean, I think all artists have some of the same. They want to continue to be able to make their work and they want their work to be shown. And how you can facilitate that individually to each of the artists and estates who ask that of us? And then how you can maintain the integrity of the project as a whole and its audience—

LEE:  So that’s like 15,000 separate projects, you know?

SADAO:  [laughs] It’s not— Yeah. I mean, it can be. It can feel like that sometimes, Nathan. Though I think the relationships that we have with a lot of the artists and estates are very personal. And they know, artists know they can— And we have over the years, both emphasized and de-emphasized, or emphasized and then been available to provide more tailored and personalized advice and attention to artists. So I mean, that’s something that both Nelson and I like, being able to work directly with artists and with the estates. But it is also simply a matter of resources; that we can’t be doing studio visits every day, if we’re also in charge of managing visits to the Archive Project, maintaining the showing of the Archive Projects, and just even as an example, the monthly web galleries, as well as funding the Archive Project. And yet I think we do— I shouldn’t be so modest. I think we do an incredible job of maintaining access, accessibility, I think, to us. And it’s in a model that harkens back to, I think, artists’ spaces. So from writing to recommendations to sort of personalizing and talking to artists about their work, and looking at their work, and encouraging and facilitating other people to look at their work, and to write about their work, and to show their work, or simply to think about.

LEE:  To not treat the art as a monument, a kind of closed, static depository, but as active— something that creates connections.

SADAO:  I think that is one of the goals.

LEE:  In terms of support, the other thing you guys do is materials grants. Can you talk about what that program is and how it works?

SADAO:  It’s part of the Archive Project as a whole.

LEE:  Oh, it’s related, specifically.

SADAO:  Exactly. So that when we speak of membership it’s not you, Nathan, gave $300 to Visual AIDS and now you’re getting a newsletter from us. Membership here often refers to artists in the Archive Project. So whether you’re the estate manager or the artist, that becomes an Archive Project member. There’s a lot of language and organization that is internal to the organization.

LEE:  [inaudible] language, all the jargon, all the acronyms, we’ve got all of that.

SADAO:  [laughs] So the materials grants are— I think when I came, we were doing them quarterly, which actually became like a huge— It’s a management issue. Because while the materials grants, like the application to the Archive Project, were intentionally, and are intentionally still, very easy to do. We don’t want artists to have to grapple with that. And I think that that’s an interesting— Again, and something that I think that was thought out and the time. And I’m very proud that we continue to try to manage the needs of the organization—say funding reporting. It’s good to capture what people do with the money, and their thoughts and the successes and failures. And at the same time, like how you make something easy enough for artists to apply for.

LEE:  It’s incredibly easy. I went to the website and clicked to get the PDF; it’s like one page. Really straight forward.

SADAO:  Yeah.

LEE:  So what happens is if you’re in part of the Archive, you can apply for materials grants. So it’s a form. And you receive— Is it $300?

SADAO:  It’s $300 right now, topped out, yes. So you can apply once a year, once every twelve months for that. And it is for artists specifically who are living on low or fixed [incomes], as we’ve changed the wording. And I think that’s something that Nelson addressed. And rightfully so. Which is, again, not as a social service organization, we don’t really know how, to— We’re not looking, like, poverty lines, this sort of thing. But we recognize that a lot of people living with HIV are living on Disability, and that makes a fixed income, especially for people who are here in New York. It’s not as if artists, anyway, have such regular and upper-middleclass incomes. So the materials grants simply come as vouchers to art supply stores.

LEE:  And this is for New York residents? Americans?

SADAO:  The Archive Project is open.

LEE:  What’s the—

SADAO:  It’s open.

LEE: Internationally?

SADAO:  Exactly. What limits and what changes who is in the Archive Project is our resources, I think, and the fact that if you were to look at the demographics of geographic location of artists, first there would be New York City and in some ways, the outlying areas; then the metropolitan cities in New York— I mean, excuse me, in the US; and then much less participation from international communities. And that simply has to do with our ability to offer resources to a South African artist or offer resources to even an artist in India or in— I’m thinking of literally countries that we have archive members where they are, or where they’ve moved to. Or where you’re from.

LEE:  Well, that’s something I want to actually get into a little bit later, the nature of the organization being tied to a specific kind of historical…

SADAO:  Yes.

LEE:  …[inaudible] gay men and artists in the city. And then when that crisis sort of passed, AIDS becomes much more international, and how the organization responds to that. We can get to that a little bit later. Let’s talk about how Visual AIDS is organized now, in terms of staff, in terms of this office here. What are the nuts and bolts of what puts this thing together?

SADAO:  We have a two-person full-time staff and we hire on, basically, project managers, curators, writers, as well as administrative staff, based on the budgets and availability and the needs of each project. How things— Are you literally asking how, like, the exchange of, like,  the division of labor breaks down?

LEE:  Well, no. I mean, so you’re the director.

SADAO:  I’m the executive director and Nelson Santos is the associate director. And I think he has on his title, as well, he’s the director of the Frank Moore Archive Project.

LEE:  Okay.

SADAO:  We have a board of directors that is now up to thirteen people. And I think that is— In some ways, if you were to talk about growth cycles in the organization, you can track the board of directors and a shrinking and a changing over, a contraction and then a changeover of who comes on to the board of directors, who leaves the board of directors. And just something that has happened under my tenure is an attempt towards transforming the board of directors from a working board of directors to a fundraising board of directors. And at the same time— I don’t know, so it’s something that we’re addressing. But the organization has a history, and it’s kind of one that I’m proud of, which is that it’s been lead by artists and arts administrators. Which of course, financially, means that there’s not the greatest capacity there and yet the—

LEE:  Not a board of donors.

SADAO:  No. We’re not the MoMA. And what they bring, however, in terms of historical memory, integrity and sort of an artist-focusedness— is that? Like keeping, I think, the needs and experience of artists central is kind of invaluable. So I’m very proud of that. We’ll continue to have representation of HIV-positive people and specifically artists on the board of directors, as well as artists, as well as arts workers; and that they bring— You know, and  we also have people who work in PR, people who work in development; and they bring their skills, in a way that expands our ability to do what we do. And granted, they can’t write giant checks; but they’re here and they actually make the organization and change the organization and understand it. And I think that that is a distinction that I don’t take lightly, that I think is different than directing a different type of nonprofit organization. I guess it’s what we call the culture of Visual AIDS. And it’s something that we do discuss and think about, as a board and staff, and try and maintain. I mean, it’s not something we can stop during the middle of the day and discuss all the time. And I think that that’s inevitably what, in some ways, perhaps even the hesitancy of doing or my hesitancy of doing this oral history is that I didn’t want to  misrepresent certain histories. I didn’t want to be definitive about other people’s histories. And also, I think it just points to the executive director-ness or the associate director-ness, simply the staff being and working full-time in— I guess whether it’s nonprofit anything. When do you have the time to draw back and reflect? And you have to build that in, which is what we have been doing as an organization through the last eighteen months, with strategic planning. But I mean, that’s sort of the ongoing push-pull, is when can you reflect and when can you have these conversations, when that’s what you’re facilitating? When you set the conditions for those conversations— And I think that production and that thinking, writing, historicizing to happen— And yet the players behind those organizations may not have the same opportunities to do that.

LEE:  Well, instead of reflections, let’s talk about action.

SADAO:  Okay.

LEE:  [laughs] So you don’t have an exhibition space here. But you put on exhibitions, you do events.

SADAO:  Absolutely.

LEE:  Can you talk about the process of how you mount exhibitions?

SADAO:  I think one of the successes, something again, that has happened under Nelson’s and my watch here at Visual AIDS, is we’ve turned the organization from having to take any opportunity that came our way to being able to direct those opportunities. It is still kind of engrained in what we do that it’s collaborative. And I think one of the hallmarks of what we do is that we’re always doing outreach and we’re always making connections and relationships with people who work in the arts, and people who work in HIV and AIDS, and people who work in queer cultural production, and people who work in queer academic work and people who work in the medical profession. I mean, there is the continual dialog that’s happening there, because you want to shake out what’s necessary, what’s needed, I think, and then what’s possible. And because we are not the research behind HIV and AIDS or we’re not— you know, we don’t have the resource—we’re not the legal institution, we’re not the museum—we kind of need to maintain a lot of communication back and forth there.

LEE:  All these different disciplines and worlds and resources.

SADAO:  Yeah. And I mean, I think interesting things come out of that. So in terms of producing, say exhibitions, we did a variety of exhibitions outside of New York in the first couple of years, in the early 2000’s; and then also one major one here in New York, which was at Artists Space called Share Your Vision, which came out of a model of doing, like, a big open call. And out of— when you do a national open call to HIV-positive artists, one, you can do the outreach to talk about the Archive Project, to let that— sort of just publicize that and communicate that that is a resource that is for artists. And out of that—I think it was 2003, Share Your Vision—I’d say maybe forty to sixty artists came into the Archive Project. And certainly, being able to do a national call and have that go out in publications, in HIV-positive publications and queer publications, having a big press team behind it—because this was funded by Hoffmann-La Roche—gave us a reach that we would simply not have been able to buy that kind of advertising.

LEE:  Yeah. How did that show come about?

SADAO:  I’m not sure when it started. I think I want to say like ’94. For many, many years, Visual AIDS was well known for doing a calendar project. And that was— Gosh, I’ve totally forgotten the name of that drug company that used to fund it. And it was the same model which, is an open call to HIV-positive artists. And what Visual AIDS would do was that they shaped that project into an opportunity that would capitalize, in some ways, for the artist, as much as possible, by bringing in a jury that would be worthwhile to have artists’ work seen by. And then I think that the partnered pharmaceutical helped do distribution on the Positively Art Calendar project.

LEE:  So there was a history of doing these open call shows.

SADAO:  Yeah. And I think Nelson and I stepped into an organization, too that had already made distinctions about a willingness to work with pharmaceutical companies, with drug companies. Yes. So I mean, when you do that, I think you have to really think about the integrity of your organization. And that the rules are there’s no branded campaigns that we do. And I think, also it’s a matter of educating your sponsor in best practices for cultural funding. And that’s something that you struggle with. But Share Your Vision did come about by an interest from Roche in sponsoring some kind of arts project to HIV-positive artists. And they were specifically interesting in doing education around  CMV retinitis. So opportunistic infection that would effect the eye and vision and the idea vision loss and what to look for. So we expanded that to sort of take the idea of vision much more widely, since it’s— That would just make more sense and make it more open to what artists could submit. And that was one, I think, earlier exhibition. But from— I’m sorry, should I just keep—

LEE:  No go ahead.

SADAO:  Yeah? The continued exhibitions and the ones that I think also have been highlighted are a six-year—gosh, more than that. But we just closed the exhibition here in New York, of Robert Blanchon, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real): The Work of Robert Blanchon. And that project went on for almost seven years. And what we just finished this last March—it was extended by a month—is the first New York retrospective exhibition of his work, ten years after his death. And it also marked the transition, the placement of both the remaining— the work that is not in private and public collections, of Robert’s, into the Fales Library, as well as all of his papers, pedagogical works, notes and personal effects, into the downtown collection of the Fales Library.

LEE:  His teaching notes were amazing. [inaudible].


SADAO:  Yeah it was really— I mean, I think at the time, he— Yeah. It’s all amazing. It’s all rich. And people can now access that, through appointment, and it’s being archived. It’s being cared for in an extraordinary—

LEE:  So Visual AIDS has been involved in this for seven years, working on this project?

SADAO:  Yes, yes.

LEE:  In the capacity of researching, archiving, preparing for an exhibition.

SADAO:  It was— I think when Robert died, he had asked his— before he died, he had asked his good friend and artistic collaborator Mary Ellen Carroll to do a couple things. And that was to have an international traveling exhibition of a show, to have a monograph published of his writings and his work. And she worked for several years and acquired some funding, and came to Visual AIDS and began a partnership. So we started at first, simply by collecting. He had been living itinerantly, teaching where he could go, as many artists do. And I think specifically, the needs for health insurance— So his work was scattered. So it was a physical archiving, in a way that the Archive Project does not undertake. The Archive Project is photo representations of work. For the Robert Blanchon estate project, we needed to do that. And so we hired Sasha Archibald, who was the program director; at the time, was a graduate student at NYU. And she worked on that project after she had graduated and moved on to being an independent curator and editor. And as we were collecting the work, a couple different shows were curated. One that Sasha and Visual AIDS curated down in Miami, that included the work. It was a duet work of Robert Blanchon’s work and the artist Stephen Andrews, who is from Toronto. Robert’s work was included in exhibitions here in New York, including I think, the Whitney Curatorial Studies Program exhibition that Sasha Archibald was part of that year. And what we were working towards was the publication of a monograph, which is called “Robert Blanchon,” and is distributed by DAP, as well as Visual AIDS. What we knew we wanted to include was an index of all of his work. And so that’s why we were searching for all of his work. And it was an extraordinary process. And I think that the book itself is something we’re very proud of. And it’s a great example of— I guess— Robert’s work is like a lot of the estates, is one of the estates in the archive project. There are many that need wider recognition, and they need a contextualization. And the Blanchon Estate Project is an example of what we could do or what other estates, I think, can do.

LEE: It’s interesting you have this mix of projects and working on all these different timelines. You have the archive that’s— [they laugh; inaudible] You have these projects that are very open and go on and on and are open-ended, and then long-term engagements like the Blanchon project, and then a show like the— To Believe, is it called?

SADAO:  That’s up right now, exactly.

LEE:  Yeah, which is kind of a one-off show.

SADAO:  You’re making me feel particularly schizophrenic. But yes. No, I mean, there’s— I guess going back to something about directing and not directing the programs. It’s part of it, in the same way of being what we were talking about, in terms of the Archive Project; how you work towards the integrity of the project as a whole, and also address the needs of individual artists and estates, and balance that? That has to do with, in some ways, the permeable institutionalization of this organization, I guess. I remember being told when I started, “But you’re not an activist organization anymore. That’s been decided a long time ago. This is the institution. You are an institution.” And when are you think of the institution, when you think of the museum, we couldn’t look further from that. I mean, it’s a huge hallmark here for the staff, that we actually have clean floors [Lee laughs] and we can have somebody clean the floors once a month. So I guess that friction, that sort of moving back and forth, and the idea that we are the institution, we are an institution, and we have institutional responsibilities, I think to the programs—specifically the Archive Project, which is one that has gone— sort of run through. I think at a certain point, we used to call it the backbone of our work with HIV-positive artists in the States. And it’s true. It’s absolutely true. And it still is. The direct relationship to HIV-positive artists and to their legacies and to their contributions, that’s what the Frank Moore Archive Project is to Visual AIDS. But we’re the institution and we’re not the institution. And the fact that we can respond to and take up different projects, different forms of them, and then sort of make them, invest them with the culture of Visual AIDS and make them into things that we see are missing in contemporary art culture or culture at large, and also respond to changes and needs. That’s a small organization’s, I think— that’s its advantages.

LEE:  Yeah. What do you think are some of those missing things, from either the art world or the culture at large, that Visual AIDS can address or is trying to address?


LEE:  Yeah. That simply, yeah.

SADAO:  And when I say that, I mean it in the sense of what sort of our colleagues, our activist colleagues like CHAMP, are talking about. Which is that there are many pieces of the puzzle. And I mean, I think this is not new information for a lot of people involved in the art world, because a lot of people involved in the art world were frontline, first wave US AIDS activists and lived through the epidemic. I don’t think I really need to go further with that, but—

LEE:  Yeah. It’s a big question for— Okay. Yeah.

SADAO:  No, go ahead.

LEE:I mean, this is a big question, how HIV/AIDS has changed. we're no longer in the crisis mode when Visual AIDS started, and its not localized in the same ways. How does Visual AIDS respond to the globalization of AIDS?

SADAO:  I want to talk about sort of two things that that question brings up. And the first is, it’s important to point out that even in the early days of Visual AIDS, which was founded in ’88— And really, the founding was sort of it’s own slow, organic movement; you know, there were committees that were working on different projects. And I think even earlier than that, as well, the art world was doing projects like Ann Philbin’s and Marisa Cardinale's work at then the new amfAR, which was raising money through the donation and sale of work for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. And that Visual AIDS came out of a lot of different sort of leveling points. And we can talk about that later. But even in ’93, ’94, there was a lot of discussion. And I think that the distinctions about how the crisis was impacting, how HIV/AIDS was impacting the art world and/or artists was also important to say; but it’s also impacting everywhere else. And it’s not that the artists are more important or are more impacted; it’s simply that we are responding to where we’re working in, which is as artists.

LEE:  Yeah, as artists, we can talk about— this is what we can do.

SADAO:  Or as archivists or as gallerists who— I mean, I think of someone like Sur Rodney (Sur), who really left, like, commercial gallery work, out of the urgency of caring for the archives of many artists who were dying and who have died of AIDS. And the other thing that’s sort of the question about the changing nature of HIV and AIDS— I feel like this right now, we are dealing with a couple things in both realms of what makes the organization unique as a unique nonprofit organization and as an HIV/ AIDS— or as an arts organization responding to HIV and AIDS and working within HIV and AIDS, talks about like the dual— I wouldn’t say crises, but they’re just transformations that are happening in both those fields. So even when we talk about nonprofit arts organizations, we don’t use the same words as like, artist-centered or alternative spaces. Like, how have things changed from the founding of that, from the sixties to the seventies to the eighties through the nineties? Which we’re not even looking at the real impact of what the nineties did to so many nonprofit arts centers. And then additionally, how has HIV/AIDS changed and HIV/AIDS activism changed? And what are the responses, what are the needs there? And I tend to sort of follow with the CHAMP model of looking at the many pieces of the puzzle, in terms of HIV and AIDS, which— How we can respond through art is an interesting— is sort of our big question. And it’s […] our mission. And we know that the demographics or like, the people who have been involved, the founders of the organization, were up front about that in their histories, too of being gay white men who are in the art world. And I think that the demographics of who’s in the Archive Project are definitely weighted there. And that’s an audience of men who have sex with men, of gay men, and I think of queer men that we work with, and have as an audience towards talking about HIV and AIDS, as well as producing exhibitions or projects or commissioned artworks there. How we can expand to talking about needle exchange, to talking about condoms in prisons, to talking about resources, to talking about LGBT, respect for lives of LGBT people. In some ways, it’s like the prevention-justice model; but in other ways, it’s exactly what earlyAIDS activists were speaking of. You know, I mean,  Bordowitz talks about, Well we knew in New York ACT UP— I mean, maybe this is Gregg’s ACT UP,but I think this is sort of shared by other activists, active activists in particular, that I had spoken to - Our goal was universal healthcare in the state of New York. So more broadly, I mean, these are not completely new ideas, though. And one of CHAMP's recent campaigns was, Fight homophobia, fight HIV/AIDS. And I think that’s something that— it’s not that it’s new, but it’s that it is necessary again. And I think we’re working in that realm, we’re responding there.

LEE:  In a sense, it’s the same issues, I think you’re saying, that have always been at stake. Maybe the scale is different, the sort of location is different, how it operates in culture and politics maybe has shifted to different places; but it’s maybe still the same questions of presentation as whole.

SADAO:  Absolutely. And I mean, we’re not— Being limited by your resources, being limited by having a modest budget here. A former executive director told me maybe a year and a half ago, “Visual AIDS is a middleclass organization. You’ll always be a middle class organization.” Which I think is, like really—

LEE:  [laughs] What does that mean?

SADAO:  Yeah I was like, Wow, we’re going to— My strategic plan is to double our income in five years. And I think we’ll achieve it. And I think, actually, it was a compliment, in the sense of—  I think that the projects warrant a budget increase of this size especially when you look at what we can do on limited resources— So that the last—  You know, this is an example that I like, which is the last three exhibitions we’ve produced in New York City, two at La MaMa La Galleria, Side by Side, curated by Dean Daderko the summer of 2008; the summer of 2009, Tainted Love, curated by Virginia Solomon and Steven Lam; what is currently up, that opened five days ago, To Believe, curated by Jeffrey Walkowiak; and the Robert Blanchon exhibition that was at the Fales Library through the winter and the spring of this financial year, curated by Bethany Martin-Breen and Tania Duvergne and Sasha Archibald— the three of those, these are the three exhibitions we curated in two years, they’re all reviewed by the New York Times. And they all have publications, in a time when other arts organizations are backing away from publishing and that kind of emphasis. But I’m not just speaking about not printing on paper, but really, you make a historical record of what you do. And that all of the projects I mentioned  had plenty of free public programming and opportunities […] to have more conversation. And maybe that is  because we are— well, not maybe, it is because we are an […] HIV/AIDS organization with a specific mission, […]a specific political mission, that we have to work harder at facilitating places in which we can have dialog about the work. I mean, I also think of other collegial organizations of New York and elsewhere that do that all the time. I mean, I think that’s a model out of nonprofit arts organizations, so it’s a model out of using—

LEE:  [over Sadao; inaudible] some of those?

SADAO:  I’m sorry, what sort of dialogs? Like a panel discussion which crossed over. I’m thinking of the two that were at the Blanchon project. One was simply around Robert’s work; but it also involved younger artists, curators who had worked with Robert during his lifetime, his estate manager, and was able to tap into— Do you know what I mean? These were like full-house attended panel discussions with a lot of dialog, I think, back and forth with the audience; and talking not only about Robert specifically, but being able to tap back into thinking about the nineties as a historical moment, and sort of linking that up with where we are now; the variety of issues that were raised in Robert’s work, as well as the context in which is was shown then and how it’s being read now, in particular in a queer lineage, in a queer artistic lineage. So for me, that’s really exciting. And I think that seeing the makeup of the people who are participating—which is something that we set, that we asked—but who attends, as well, kind of speaks to a place in which there is a lineage; in the way that I think a lot of people see HIV/AIDS as part of a queer lineage. And that a refusal, in some ways, by younger queers, younger queer activists and artists and art historians, to have any sort of break historically, but instead to put themselves in a lineage; and also a commitment on behalf on people who [..] are older, who lived through this, who predated HIV/AIDS and who are committed still to seeing an end to AIDS and who are committed not only to the legacies but to the lives of people who are living with HIV now. And as John Kelly said at our benefit, “It’s not just living with HIV.” I mean, these are terms we know from AIDS activism, but again, warrant kind of repeating. You know, it’s thriving, it’s creating and leading. So that’s an example. The public programs that came out of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), the Robert Blanchon show.

LEE:  I was wondering maybe if we could talk about the Day Without Art. This is still ongoing, the Day With[?] Art? Or not so much?

SADAO:  Yeah it is, but we are not the organizing hub.

LEE:  Okay.

SADAO:  That shifted from— I mean, we can speak about it historically.

LEE:  We can talk about that later [inaudible].

SADAO:  Yeah. But I think that it was a decis— Yeah, it’s not— We’re not the organizing hub of all activities around World AIDS Day. We usually produce something or collaborate, but it’s an autonomous project. And I think that shifting directions from the focus on one day of the year or one single project to a more diverse platform of programs necessitated prioritization. And some it was simply that Day Without Art can happen on its own.  Are we going to take a break?

[off-topic comments between them; audio file stops, re-starts; off-topic comments between them]

SADAO:  You had asked me what sort of things we were working on or things that— And just to be a little more specific about the processes, right?...

LEE:  Yeah.

SADAO:  …of how things happen. I think the two programs that are kind of of direct interest right now are the exhibition programs— like physical exhibitions. I think the ongoing web archives are really interesting; but the opportunity to produce physical exhibitions with public programs and publications, which is a hallmark of what we do in New York City, we know has a lot to do with the availability of exhibition spaces. And we are very lucky to have been collaborating with La MaMa La Galleria’s space on East 1st Street, a couple blocks up from the New Museum, and the Lower East Side, where all the new galleries are, to produce a summer exhibition there. And that’s something that I’m really interested in. Our model is that we invite proposals from curators. And we’re kind of constantly on the search for curators who might have interesting ideas. I mean, part of it is people always come to us; but we also have to put it out there and cultivate that and make those requests. And the process of the show being produced is we invite curators to submit a short proposal, either sort of thematically around two things; one which is that the show is about HIV and AIDS in some ways. And again, the way that we often describe it is— And the satellite issues around HIV and AIDS. And some of that is not necessarily the satellite issues. It is the story of HIV and AIDS. Again, the tagline of HIV/AIDS is proof positive of, like racialized, gendered injustice. And so then that becomes a very broad, open space for curators to think about things, or artists to think about things. Because it’s not that we’re opposed to having artists curate, but I think that it’s been lovely, actually, to work with both independent curators and people who maybe are affiliated in academia or in the commercial gallery world, but who work as curators, and to develop and encourage that practice. And that sort of, I think, comes from our— It’s another kind of cultural thing that we adopted and we do as a nonprofit arts organization. The other end of where those exhibitions might intersect is that they utilize artists and estates from artists represented in the Archive Project. And that becomes a little more open-ended. but I think that people of kind of— it’s an evolution, in some ways, out of web galleries and out of keeping this archive public. What we hope for by making it a public resource is that people will come here and see— either be charged with ideas and themes of interest, or be introduced to one work, the work of ten artists, a theme that comes out of looking at this slice of contemporary art. And that might appear in different forms in their work, and that’s what we’re doing with, I think, the exhibition program that we have at La MaMa each summer.       

LEE:  Somebody created[?] it to do a project, and then you invite them to come look at the archives. Do they have to work with some portion of the archive? Is that part of the [inaudible]?

SADAO:  The web gallery is just to make a selection of ten to twenty works. So they are limited to what’s in the Archive Project. I think what happens out of that, Edwin Ramoran’s work with Do you Think I’m Disco, and the D-L show came out of— He just utilized the work in the introduction of the artists. And some curators or researchers or art historians, like Paul Sendzuik , who’s a social historian from Australia, was alerted to Visual AIDS not only through the history, the founding of it, but also from what is available in the web galleries. And his research and collaboration culminated in a conference, both here in 2008, at CUNY, as well as he did a follow-up conference just this last February, in Adelaide Australia. And that was kind of fantastic, to have so many different— again, this multigenerational response. […] It challenged, I think, a lot of ideas that seem to float around, one of which is that young queer people have no idea; and that they didn’t live through it, so they have no idea. And I think that that’s a response I often hear from first-line HIV/AIDS activists. But some of that may be true, but I also think that you can counter that there are counter-narratives, that there’s different stories there —[…] And that they’re racialized, they’re class-based responses - […] like Pato Hebert at APLA and the Corpus project, or Francisco Rojas and Luna Luis Ortiz […]nd their work that they were doing with House of Latex and the ballroom scene, and artists like Ivan Monforte, who works as an HIV/AIDS educator, in harm reduction, with the Lower East Side […]needle exchange, with a whole different population of people who maybe were the ones that the early Archive Project or something was responding to. So the exhibition program is something that having a relationship with an exhibition space in New York solidified.

LEE:  How long did [inaudible]?

SADAO:  This is the third year.

LEE:  And that’s a one-summer[?] show.

SADAO:  Uh-huh. We have the June exhibition. And I would say that we’re working two or three exhibitions each year. And again, that is an ongoing process of making those collaborations and then bringing the budget to produce an exhibition that sort of follows in the quality lines that we want to do—which would be offering honorariums to the speakers and to artists, and providing the insurance and framing of work, transport of work, and as much as possible, with legitimate art shipping. I mean, all arts organizations— and I think ours in particular functions in the best way, because we think like artists and we work like artists. And I’m speaking really in the best way. So that you can come up with creative visual solutions. And at the same time, we have a particular interest in raising the tide of how things are produced; insuring that work is safe, that work is handled professionally, that things are documented; and that the reach of an exhibition, the life of an exhibition extends beyond those who have the capacity to walk into the gallery, through publications; and making those things free, making those things available as PDF downloads; that things are designed well, and that the people who do all this are paid.

LEE:  [inaudible].

SADAO:  And the same thing. So I’m particular[?], and I think Nelson in our organization is particularly proud of being able to do that on a very small budget, but making sure that the curator’s paid, that the graphic designer is paid, that there are minimal honorariums offered, and that the work is insured, that the exhibition space has an insurance policy, that we are coming up with good ways to display that work and to handle the transportation back and forth. And we are lucky to work with curators. And I think it’s one of the parameters in which we let curators know when they submit proposals and that we evaluate proposals, is their willingness also to come up with the creative solutions, and their willingness, in a lot of ways, to project manage those jobs. Because it’s not like working in a museum or even in a larger nonprofit institution, where you’re going to have staff behind you and you can just sort of curate but not do the leg work there. So that is what happens when one works with Visual AIDS. The other project that we have— I guess Nelson and I, from the beginning, like back in 2002, 2003, we really talked about what kind of programs we would do if we would have an unlimited budget, and the sorts of things that we really felt were missing and necessary. And one of the historical projects that we were both interested in was an evolution out of the Day Without Art posters. And in a lot of ways, was an evolution of the early mission, programs, legacy, public profile of what Visual AIDS produced. And that was, at the time, called Broadsides. Our designer friend Amy Mees of x-ing design  just said, “I really dislike the fact that you use the word broadsides.” It’s again, this lingo, this vernacular that’s specific to Visual AIDS that we have to change. They are not simply printed pieces. They are really commissioned, open-ended artist editions around HIV and AIDS. So they’re often HIV prevention, as well as AIDS awareness. And again, I’d like to kind of keep that open. Like, they’re around HIV and AIDS. And again, issues surrounding HIV and AIDS. They response, obviously,to what is a huge lack. Like I mean, it’s still this gaping hole. I mean, it’s just emptiness, in terms of messages and in terms of engaging specifically prevention. And I think that that was— Anyone who’s sort of out there knows that that’s not— I mean, it’s just we just don’t see it anymore. And what we do see, we’ve become immune to in some ways. Or it may be being generated in a social messaging field or with— like we use the example of Magic Johnson with his fist raised. Do you know? And I don’t know what that means anymore. Or we sponsored a project that was […] in Northern Ethiopia of the artist Angie Eng, when I was first here. And Angie talked about the red ribbon appearing everywhere in Northern Ethiopia; and yet nobody— It was a lot, also because NGOs were distributing t-shirts that had red ribbons, but people not really knowing what it meant. And so the empty symbolism there is, in some ways, a lot of the ways in which we think about HIV and AIDS. So more provocative, more sexy, more interesting, more thought provoking, more controversial works—that’s what we’re trying to do. And then the process— I mean, that’s the conceptual idea or that’s what we saw as missing from culture and specific to our city, specific to New York City, and specific to where we are. We’re here in the Chelsea art district. What the process is is to make the artists editions, the art work, free and to work on distribution  and partnerships. And in some ways, to work on a real specific model of distribution, which is hand-to-hand distribution, so that conversations might be more facilitated.

LEE:  So you apply[?] all the cards or—

SADAO:  We will through, depending on where it’s— But targeted, do you know? And then also like the sets that we’ve been doing right now. They will be hand-to-hand distributed through Pride events. But we would do that also through collaborating organizations. If there is a bunch of trading cards with condoms and lube packaged together, they’re going to be left specifically in— The work is targeting men who have sex with men. It’s going to be in a gay bar and it’s going to be like the stuff that’s out right now, which is sports themed, specifically, in sports-themed bars or at the LGBT center. Or our own projects. And the one— Excuse me, like our own exhibitions. But finding, I guess, the evolution of broadsides is being more and more strategic about how we develop the message and what we develop it through, and having the partnership for distribution intact. The one that’s going out right now—which are these photographs commissioned by Aaron Cobbett, and InkedKenny, Greg Mitchell, Slava Mogutin[inaudible]—they’re trading cards, they’re baseball trading cards with a sports theme. Very sexy.

LEE:  How many projects are produced per year? And then how many in each edition? Does it vary?

SADAO:  It does vary. We try and do at least three but this one— I mean, for the trading cards, each of them was separate. They functioned together, but each of the artists was paid sort of from a set budget and printing. I’m sorry, I’m getting a little tired. But they would develop the ideas behind it, the message behind it, and knowing what the audience was going to be, came out of working and— God, it took it a long time for us to get this meeting with Dr. Demetre Daskalakis who’s programmed the Men’s Sexual Health Project, has been for many years, I mean over the course of many years, has been working to distribute— not to distribute but to counsel and provide testing in the sex clubs in New York and private sex parties. And that’s the specific population that he’s working with. And it’s also a population of men who have sex with men in the city, that that is where HIV is still rising. And I mean, it doesn’t sort of change as much as[?], we know, the impact of what’s happening in the developing world. It’s not to take away, I think, from the real impact of the epidemic globally; but in some ways, the public eye has also ignored— And you know, it depends on where you are and it depends on who you are. But men who have sex with men in this city, and how we can talk about HIV and AIDS.

LEE:  Is there a dedicated budget for the broadside project?

SADAO:  Absolutely. Yeah.

LEE:  Something— Yeah. It’s sort of a fixed part of what you do year in, year out.

SADAO:  Yeah, yeah. So I mean, we can work with different populations. Like even working with a more youthful population, simply around condom use. And again, trying to stay with ideas of promoting behind— I mean, I guess the gap there is eight years of abstinence-only funding, and a resistance on the part of our institutions to deal with comprehensive sex education, to talk about sex and sexuality. How we can do that with an artist’s commission, that’s sort of— you need to look and see how those things are successful or not successful. But my experience with producing tote bags or stickers or small posters and offering them to high school students or to college students, kind of diverse groups of them, is a real— There’s an immediate attraction to what’s provocative and what’s fun and what’s interesting as artworks. When you work with artist commissions, we’re not necessarily doing— We work sometimes with graphic designers. And I think that the Play it Safe trading cards that were developed with Nelson and our long-time collaborator John Chaich, who did a lot of HIV/AIDS arts projects when he was in Cincinnati, and continues to do these things, and they sort of work on the campaigns together. How do you commission an artist to make propaganda in a certain way? How do you commission an artist to make an artwork, to make an art edition or an edition that is so specific? And so some of those conceivably look more like social messaging, and some of them look more like conceptual art projects. And I think you get a different reaction from different audiences, clearly. So I’m hesitant to say some of them are more successful than others, because it depends on how you judge them. And one thing I feel interested in is the idea that art is still useful to talk about HIV and AIDS. And it’s probably most useful to talk about HIV and AIDS, because it doesn’t have a lot of answers. And that’s— In terms of— It has more questions. So those are two projects that we’re really interested in, Nathan.

LEE:  [laughs] I’m thinking, time and energy-wise, we’ve been talking for almost two hours.

SADAO:  [laughs] Are we having flagging energies?

LEE:  I mean, do you want to do the past…

SADAO:  Yeah, we can.

LEE:  …today? Do you want to do it tomorrow?

SADAO:  Let’s talk a little bit about it. Yeah.

LEE:  Okay. Okay. [laughs] So yeah, I mean, I guess if you want to sketch, give the oral history Wikipedia account, you know, sketch maybe the early days, how it was founded, by whom. [inaudible]

SADAO:  [over Lee] You know, the standard lines right now are that in 1988 Visual AIDS was founded by a group of arts professionals, to organize the art world to respond to what was then known as the AIDS epidemic. And those four arts professionals were— Oh, my goodness. See, this is where I’m a little bit— Yeah, thank you. Were Robert Atkins, the critic, who’s now in California; William Olander, Bill Olander, who was the curator at the New Museum; Tom Sokolowski, who was at the time the director of the Grey Art Gallery, and is now the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; and Gary Garrels, who was at the Dia Foundation and is now actually— He’s in San Francisco now, I think.

LEE:  Yeah.

SADAO:  Yeah. So another curator. And I think that if you were to speak with either Robert Atkins or Patrick O’Connell, who was the first executive director— I mean, if you were to speak to any of them, you would get the story. Patrick O’Connell has a particularly good memory for lots of the elements there. And I think that there were a lot of other projects happening. Philip Yenawine, who was the director of education at MoMA, I believe the first board president of Visual AIDS— The Art Matters group, the funding organization Art Matters, is where things were working— Visual AIDS was percolating and projects like a Day Without Art, and later, the red ribbon and [inaudible] vanishing[?] exhibitions and— Allen Frame and Simon— or Allen Frame— I’m mixing things. But I think Simon Watson and I think it was Gary Garrels, who were also doing kind of a registry of artists, HIV-positive artists, artists who had died of AIDS.

LEE:  That’s the seed of the archive? Or was it a different thing?

SADAO:  You know, I feel like there may have been…

LEE:  That sounded[?] earlier than [inaudible]—

SADAO:  …a crossover. Yeah, there may have been crossover there. But the Archive Project, this, that was adopted in ’94— This is much earlier. This is like ’88, ’89. And there were just a lot of conversations happening. So that Day Without Art, in some ways, which was in—

LEE:  That’s the first initiative, really…

SADAO:  Exactly.

LEE:  …of Visual AIDS.

SADAO:  Exactly.

LEE:  And the idea of Day Without Art was to—?

SADAO:  It was really to illustrate the impact of HIV and AIDS on art. You know, the tagline was, “A day of mourning and rage and solid—” Excuse me. “A day of solidarity,” and then the terms mourning and rage. I’m sorry.

LEE:  That’s alright. [inaudible] gallery [inaudible].

SADAO:  [over Lee] Solidarity with people living with HIV and— people living with AIDS, and their caregivers. And it was a request to remove the art in a way that lives were being removed from public view. So galleries— I think there was an emphasis on institutions more than commercial galleries. Museums, university galleries were asked to dim the lights, shroud the works, remove the works, close their doors, have their staffs go and work in AIDS service organizations for the day. I mean, there were a variety of different ways in which the art world could shut down and direct attention.

LEE:  To—

SADAO:  To the epidemic. And Visual AIDS would commission— So for the several years, many years that it grew— And it grew immensely, and it grew immediately. And the spin-off projects that Visual AIDS helped manage, and also just birthed out of Day Without Art were Night Without Light, which was replicated not only in New York, which— There’s extraordinary images. There’s a postcard that exists of the sort of before and after. So a moment of darkness and the skyline going dark. And then you can see that replicated around the world. Or Moment Without Television, where things went blank on the cable television channels. You know, like these moments of silence. All of these responses happened, I think, in conjunction with, at the same time, if not inspired by the early works of Visual AIDS. And I think Patrick O’Connell in particular often says, you, like the— well, it was started by this group—or Robert Atkins does. You know, it was immediately joined by artists. And sort of how will we use arts projects to direct attention to the pandemic. And it was looking for that symbol, looking for a way for AIDS awareness, in the most general and really early sense. And that’s where, from the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, the red ribbon arrived, which was originally called the Ribbon Project. It’s interesting that that project— I find it particularly interesting that the red ribbon was an artists’ project and that it was a collaboration. Those are two things that, like, somehow can’t make the record historically. Because artists are always individual, there’s always one artist. You know, this is the story. And because it’s become so ubiquitous—for better or for worse—that it’s hard to think of it as an artists’ project[?].

LEE:  Do you know who the artists were who—     

SADAO:  Well, some of the names of the Artists Caucus, it was Frank Moore and Allen Frame, Paul H-O, Nan Goldin. And I think the Artists Caucus itself was permeable, and then there were a lot of people very early on, who you have these wonderful images of, of making those ribbons. And you can talk to people and they will tell you about, like the different stories of the decisions about a two-inch piece of ribbon and the—what do you call it?—the safety pin that goes through it. There’s one now in the Museum of Modern Art. Paula Antonelli [inaudible] had put it in the collection. And you know, then also the collaboration immediately with people out of—I think it wasn’t even Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS; I think they were still separate at that time—to how you place it and how to get the attention there. And you know, like who wore it at the Emmys. And then it became seen, and then all of a sudden everyone could— Just the collaboration was sort of like the amazing moment of being able to place it on every seat at the Emmy Awards or—

LEE:  The question of placement is super interesting.

SADAO:  Yes.

LEE: These kinds of organizations coming out of the crisis and being very savvy about media and how to place things. That energy is really [inaudible].

SADAO:  Well, and I think that that, again, while they weren’t four artists who started it, it’s like they thought like artists and they worked in art. And so that maybe in some ways, the lightning fast response, the creativity, and in some ways, just the fluidity, but the way— You know, I’m not sure, but I’d like to think that. I’d like to think that some of that energy carries over in what we do now. I mean, I certainly— And it’s something that we joke about. The red ribbon was never copyrighted. That was a goal. The goal of the project was to make something so easy— People still call up, “Can we buy a bunch of red ribbons?” Why would you pay money? [Lee laughs] Like, go to the yardage store. That was the original card[?]. You cut two inches, you put a safety pin through it. Uuhh. It was like it was supposed to be this most easily replicated thing. The same way with Day Without Art. And so the idea that the organization never kind of branded it, never owned it, never copyrighted, never tried to make it financially remunerative, is both where we’re at now, to be a twenty-one-year-old organization without an endowment— And so Nelson[?] [inaudible] looked like— We would—  Wow. That would radically change our world if Visual AIDS had made money by taking out a copyright. But on the other hand we would never work for an organization that would’ve copyrighted the red ribbon. So, we come out of that lineage. So, we still struggle with that. And I believe that we can grow, but we will always have that history. And I think it makes us and other nonprofit organizations kind of special, in a certain way, when you grapple with that history. So it’s really extraordinary.

LEE:  Are you in contact with any of the original founders?

SADAO:  Well, Frank— Patrick— Excuse me. Patrick O’Connell, there’s a documentary being made about him right now, which will be really interesting. It was called A Visual Activist, and now it’s called Let the Record Show. Let’s see. Not Gary Garrels. Tom Sokolowski, yes. And Bill Olander, we have a Visual AIDS Vanguard Award named to honor him. And when the New Museum moved and opened its twenty-four hour doors on December 1st, they re-sited the Gran Fury Silence = Death sign, which I believe is still permanently sited…

LEE:  It’s still there, yeah, in the basement [inaudible].

SADAO:  …in the area as you go to the basement.

LEE:  Yeah.

SADAO:  It was originally in the window. But you know, I think that there’s— To say, like, to be in contact with the four founders, I feel like we’re in contact and we continually— People move in and out of contact with us. I mean, I hadn’t met Robert Atkins for many years, and then I did our exhibitions and would run into him in L.A. And you know, like Ann Philbin was not a founder of the organization, but her early work; and then to be able to meet her. Or to work with Douglas Crimp and people who were not also affiliated, people who had— Because there was also real big distinctions around who was where, sometimes.

LEE:  In terms of?                              

SADAO:  You know, like who—

LEE:  Visual AIDS or—

SADAO:  You know, and I think another misnomer was that Visual AIDS was the— Sometimes it’s called the visual art wing of ACT UP. That’s not exactly true. I mean, it’s actually not true. There were certainly people who were extraordinarily involved in ACT UP and in cell groups like The Marys, like Carrie Yamaoka[?] and Joy Episalla. And then there were other people like Frank Moore, as far as I understand, who wasn’t active in ACT UP; that’s not kind of where Frank’s activism lay. And I think that things like the red ribbon may have come out in parallel with. You know, I think it’s sort of like— Or like David Roman's[sp?] early work around tracing HIV and AIDS through gay community newspapers nationally. And one of the projects there was sort of looking beyond New York ACT UP as responses to HIV and AIDS. And there was, like, an interesting time.

LEE:  Can you talk any more about your sense of how Visual AIDS sort of fit into the New York world I the early years, in the late eighties, early nineties? The art world or the activism world. It’s interesting, this idea, this false idea that it was the kind of visual arm of ACT UP.

SADAO:  Do you know what my sense is? And that’s just from meeting people involved with— meeting artists who were the first ten in the Archive Project. You know, the ones who are still living. Meeting artists who served on the board of directors, like Steed Taylor. Or like someone like Stefanie Nagorka, who is an artist who was responding. Or my current board members, my board president, like Geoff Hendricks or Sur Rodney (Sur), and the ways in which they— where they came from, what art worlds they came from, and maybe why they joined with Visual AIDS. Part of it was really to use art as the response. And while I think the four founders came from— I don’t know if they would agree with this, but they were coming from museums and they were downtown institutions, for sure. And I mean, I think they would all agree to that. And I get the sense that Visual AIDS was very much out of the East Village scene, was out of the downtown scene. And there was an institutionalization and some support from a lot of institutions. But similar to sometimes some of the debates you hear around who was involved with ACT UP and who was really opposed to that kind of activism, Visual AIDS may have had some middle ground there. There were still people who would not respond to what Visual AIDS was doing. And there was a lot of lobbying that had to happen. The idea around something like the red ribbon or the idea around something like Day Without Art is, in some ways, how you can also use art to talk about things that are difficult, and to allow people to be engaged in a way that intersects with, you know, museum culture.


LEE:  So maybe in a way, by self-identifying as an arts organization, operating as an arts organization. Visual AIDS could partner with institutions or people without being put off maybe, or frightened for them with ACT UP or— It’s a different kind of relationship.


SADAO:  I would be wary to say that now.


LEE:  Okay. Well, then—


SADAO:  But yeah. I mean, I do believe that art allows you to talk about some things— I mean, this is something that we’ve said and tried to do with things like the broadside project, which is to open up to talk about difficult subject matter. And also subject matter that is not talked about—specifically, sex and sexually. You know, specifically like in justice and, like, resources or something. But I’m not sure. I mean, it would be interesting to hear the different perspectives. I guess my own perspective on that— Hm. I don’t even know I’ll render an opinion on that right now.


LEE:  It’s alright. Do you know anything about the physical history of Visual AIDS? I know—


SADAO:  Where it was and where—


LEE:  Yeah. They got their first space in ’89, I guess, in the Clocktower. Do you know anything about that?


SADAO:  Yeah, I know they were sharing space with—I always thought that was on 24th Street—with Art Matters, with the funding organization, which came out of— I mean, it’s interesting when you look at someone like Robert Atkins as being involved with this whole, as a censorship activist, and the fact that Art Matters would support people like Alexander Gray and Philip Yenawine, who are still on the board of directors. That came up because— after the NEA stopped funding individual organizations. And as we know, like Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, the exhibition that was at Artists Space when Susan Wyatt was there, which was censored and became like the straw man for the culture wars around funding that, oh, you know, these moralizations— I mean, we don’t have to tell the whole story. But so that was an HIV/AIDS, in some ways, one of the— just like one of the foundations around, say, AIDS artwork and responses by artists and art historians to HIV and AIDS—whether you want to call that AIDS art activism or if you want to name that at all, but it was the responses. And so that sets off funding reduction, elimination. And something like Art Matters steps in to offer direct grants to artists who are politically engaged. And so Visual AIDS is sharing that space. And then at a later date, Visual AIDS shared space in— like, rented a room in the New York Historical Society. And that had to do with the involvement, I believe, probably of the Debs Foundation and Paul Gunther, who was a long-time board member, and Nick Debs, who was the— after Patrick McConnell, it was Nick Debs. And then it was Barbara Hunt, who’s an executive director here. So really small spaces, I believe, when Barbara Hunt came in the mid-nineties, after Nick Debs’ tenure here. I think Choire Sicha as an assistant director, crossed over; but at a certain point, she was sort of like a one-woman operation, in the same way that Patrick O’Connell had been like a one-man operation. And then we moved here to this office on 26th Street.


LEE:  And that’s in—


SADAO:  Like ’94, ’95.


LEE:  So it’s been here since the mid-nineties. Wow.


SADAO:  Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was right at the tipping point, when this was coming up as an arts district. Maybe it was later than that. But yeah. I mean, in terms of the physical makeup of the organization, it’s moved— between one and two people. So yeah. And housing. It took a long time for it to become— even to have its own home, its whatever, independent office. But it never had an exhibition space or anything; it was always sort of like the organizing hub. And like, this is the HQ of what Visual AIDS—


LEE:  The network of things that were created.


SADAO:  Exactly. And that’s something— that is what the history is. And I love the images of— I mean, with something like our fundraiser, like the Postcards From the Edge, which is now up to something crazy, like 1800 international artists donate work; and then we expanded it so that we can have this opening reception where, you know, just tons of people attend. And it’s so interesting to meet people over and over again wherever you go that say, “I was involved with Visual AIDS. I was involved with Visual AIDS.” And we may not have them in the notes that exist in the back of our office, in like our own historical archive about the organization’s founding; but of course, like, these are the images of people making the posters, of rolling the Day Without Art posters, of shipping the Day Without Art posters, of doing ribbon bees, as they liked to call them—sitting on rooftops, sitting in offices, making those red ribbons. And that was the devotion, in some ways, and that was what drove Visual AIDS’ success, too, was like the— It’s stilltrue. You know, none of our projects would be possible without, like many, many hands and volunteers and interns and people who are willing to— I mean, that’s what we have as supporters; and they had a support then, too. It wasn’t people who were writing big checks, it was people who were like, I’m going to give you what I can, which is to give you six hours of my life every week.


LEE:  One of the key moments or questions I have about the institution is what happens to Visual AIDS around ’96, when the antiretrovirals come in and the crisis, as it’s been known, changes? How does the institution, if you have any sense of this, respond to that, adapt to that, change with that moment? And if not, you don’t have to—


SADAO:  Yeah. I actually think that—


LEE:  If at all. I mean, maybe it doesn’t.


SADAO:  I would have to look further. I don’t know about whether or not— you know, like how things in the Archive Project changed and if there was a bigger emphasis there. My sense of it, also is that under that— That switchover was sort of also— that timeframe was also the change-over from a directorship here, from Nick Debs’ directorship to Barbara Hunt’s directorship. And Barbara Hunt came in as an executive director and curator, with a history of running exhibiting organizations and also archives, in London. And she switched over and established a lot of exhibitions here in New York, and smaller exhibitions and larger exhibitions, including an international show, Bodies of Resistance that opened in Durban, South Africa and then traveled to Real Art Ways. That was, I believe— This may— My sense of it is that that was also the first exhibition that included HIV-negative artists, but thematically about HIV and AIDS. First out one of the Visual AIDS formula. You know, I mean, I think prior to that, the work that Nick and Cory had done was also building the Archive Project, was doing outreach to HIV-positive artists. The huge Cyclorama show. Carrie Yamaokaworked on it and Sur Rodney (Sur) and Geoffrey Hendricks. And there is a publication, AIDS Communities/Arts Communities, that is still, in some ways, the most comprehensive publication about the Archive Project, which was a single image and a statement or something written about each artist. And it was this huge outreach to make the project— to publicize the project and to encourage and enable HIV-positive artists to get their work into this Archive Project. And you know, this was a collaboration with different arts organizations—the Queer Caucus of the College Arts Association—and it was during the College Arts Association in Boston. So kind of a switch from that model of exhibitions to— Something different happened at that time. I don’t know what kind of— you know, I haven’t really—


LEE:  Can I ask, also about your website. The, did that— It’s The AIDS.


SADAO:  I don’t know, actually, if The Body is a nonprofit organization. I think it isn’t.


LEE:  What is— that’s a larger thing, right?


SADAO:  The Body is a network of— it was for many years, I think, the largest network on the web, of HIV and AIDS resources. You know, I mean, it’s similar to what Pause has up now. And they sponsored, very early—and they still do—The Body; built websites, and sponsored the sites of a lot of nonprofit HIV/AIDS organizations. And so we’ve been working with them and they hold our site and enable us to have a website, because we don’t have the resources to manage that in-house.


LEE:  So how are they funded? Or what is the nature of— How is The Body run?


SADAO:  You know, there was just a switch-over there from, I think, like the founding director, and I’m not sure. You can ask Nelson a little bit more about that. But I feel like it’s— They’re a resource network, but I don’t think that they’re nonprofit.


LEE:  So they manage— I mean, you designed the content and so forth here, with the various [inaudible] work with, and it’s just hosted there.


SADAO:  haunted. Yes, of course.


LEE:  The future? Should we close with the future? Where do you want Visual AIDS to go, to be in a few years? Do you have a vision for—


SADAO:  Do you know, in the strategic plan we sort of— in the planning process, we looked towards— We started very broadly, too. What’s going to happen in HIV and AIDS in the next fifteen years? What’s going to happen in contemporary art in the next fifteen years? And in the same way that I’m speaking of, like, we’re at this crossroads and both of these things, both of these worlds, these universes are changing. You know, like is AIDS going to be over in fifteen years? Well, we can’t answer that. I mean, you kind of can’t answer that. But what is the trend? That there’s not any attention being paid to HIV and AIDS. And we’re certainly coming off of the first time in a long time that an AIDS activist movement[?] makes the above-the-fold digital eight[?] in the Times, for the Obama administration not kind of going forward on its promises for either— for the funding and the reporting of what the lack of funding, what the drawback in funding in Africa is really going to do. Attention to HIV and AIDS is lacking. So what we’re trying to do is working to keep alive simply, AIDS is not over. Again, and that’s kind of going back to like— These messages existed, but it’s like they kind of have to come back. And we do that through art. And I think what I’d like to do is to see everything scaled up. And I think what we do, we do really well. But I want more of it, just make it more available. Like exhibitions regularly, exhibitions on a larger scale, exhibitions in different places. Maybe not just larger; it could be exactly the same, but more of them. And more conferences, more opportunities to put together panels and engage audiences; more places that you can take classes and curators can talk through their ideas or artists can talk about their work; more publications—and that could be digital or printed; and conceivably more public works, with a wider range. And whether they take the form of multi-venue giant collaborations like Day Without Art, I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t know how that exists in the art world right now. I think public art projects do, and I would like to see— And a lot of the people in charge, in the US, of the big public art projects did a lot of HIV/AIDS works. And I think that there, the people they’ve mentored are making them now. And I think we’re going to keep working as that bridge between the artists, the arts producers, the art historians, the curators; between what happened out of sort of seventies-eighties models of producing—I don’t know what you want to call it—engaged art, and the models that are existing now; and how we’re going to do that with or without corporate sponsorship. I mean, we’re all sort of in this cycle of a recession and whatever— I don’t have, like, long-term vision of seeing the bubble, the art world bubble and crash, in the same way that someone like Sur Rodney (Sur) has talked to me about it. Yeah. I mean, I’m excited to kind of see the organization grow. And that’s what we’ve been steadily doing. We’ve been able to stabilize it financially, and to make the works that we’ve been talking about making again—the broadside pieces, the exhibitions, the publications, the web galleries. And in some ways, developing the audience and the support. Like the people that make up Visual AIDS, keeping that, I guess, a community, in a lot of ways. Yeah. No, I mean, I think that’s absolutely true. And that’s what I hear over and over again, at any event that we do, everyplace that we go, is a sense of ownership in this organization. And that will expand.


LEE:  Perfect. [they laugh] Expansion! [END]