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'Out at the CHM' event examines art, AIDS and activism
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-03-12

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Art, AIDS and activism in Chicago were the foci of the second of three talks during this year's OUT at the CHM March 3 at the Chicago History Museum ( CHM ).

Joseph Varisco ( founder of "Queer, Ill, and Okay" and program coordinator at the Alphawood Foundation ) moderated a panel featuring John Neff ( consulting curator of the Alphawood exhibition and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—SAIC ), Mary Patten ( SAIC professor, artist, activist and a founder of ACT-UP/Chicago ), Oli Rodriguez ( artist, founder of the Papi Project and faculty member at Urban Gateways and SAIC ) and Alisa Swindell ( Gallery 400 curatorial assistant, activist and Ph.D. candidate in art history at UIC ).

CHM Executive Vice President and Chief Historian Russell Lewis praised the OUT at the CHM volunteer committee for their role in shaping these events.

OUT at the CHM committee member Franck Mercurio explained that this event was inspired by two current exhibits—Alphawood Gallery's "ArtAIDSAmerica," focusing on artists depictions of the early days of the AIDS crisis and DePaul Art Museum's "One day this kid will get larger," featuring contemporary artists work showcasing current HIV health issues. Both exhibits are free and end on April 2 of this year.

Ahead of the panel discussion, Neff spoke about the history of HIV/AIDS activism in Chicago and how deeply entwined AIDS and art was in the 1980s and '90s. He showed examples of this art activism from a variety of archives.

Varisco opened the discussion by asking how each panelist defined the word activist. He also noted that he does not consider himself as a traditional artist or activist.

Patten said it's a complicated term because people occupy different roles at different times within artistic and activist circles while Rodriguez noted exhibits can be activism.

Swindell explained that an activist has to have a willingness to push back and she thinks of the word as a verb more than an adjective.

Neff said he sees himself as someone who has a strong interest in education, and believes activism and education share many qualities.

In terms of whether activist artwork loses that status when it's featured in institutions, Swindell said it depends on where the art lands. Patten noted that one has to be aware of what it means to work with institutions.

The discussion also touched on making sure different groups are represented in activist action including the art that is featured within those spaces.

The final OUT at the CHM program, "From New Town to Boystown to Lake View" is on Thursday, May 18 at the Center on Halsted. To purchase tickets ( $15 for CHM members and student, $20 for the general public ) visit www.chicagohistory.org/event/out-at-chm-from-new-town-to-boystown-to-lake-view/ .


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