Giant AIDS quilt display set for April in SF's Golden Gate Park

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Monday February 17, 2020
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Bob Lenzi, right, keeps track as volunteers Larry Wolfson, left, Beth Feingold, Matt Polsdorf, and Holly Branscombe unload AIDS Memorial Quilt panels before stacking on shelving at a San Leandro warehouse February 14. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Bob Lenzi, right, keeps track as volunteers Larry Wolfson, left, Beth Feingold, Matt Polsdorf, and Holly Branscombe unload AIDS Memorial Quilt panels before stacking on shelving at a San Leandro warehouse February 14. Photo: Rick Gerharter

As part of the activities for Golden Gate Park's 150th anniversary, portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed in San Francisco for three days in April.

The quilt display will consist of 1,920 panels, approximately the same size and shape of the first major quilt display in Washington, D.C. in 1987. The quilt was last displayed in full in 1996 on the National Mall in D.C.

The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, organizers of the park's sesquicentennial, and representatives of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, which now has stewardship of the quilt, made the announcement late Monday.

A news conference will be held Tuesday morning at a warehouse in San Leandro, where blocks of the quilt began arriving last week. (See more below.)

Portions of the quilt will be on public display from Friday, April 3 through Sunday, April 5. Golden Gate Park's 150th anniversary community day is set for April 4. Thousands of people are expected over the weekend, organizers said.

The Golden Gate Park display will take place in Robin Williams Meadow, along Bowling Green Drive, and in the AIDS grove.

According to a news release from Rec and Park and the grove, the quilt panels on display will be comprised of those that have been added to the quilt's nearly 50,000 panels in recent years, reflecting the story of HIV/AIDS during the past decade, particularly in communities of color.

"The face of HIV and AIDS has changed drastically since the pandemic devastated communities across the United States and San Francisco nearly 40 years ago," AIDS grove Executive Director John Cunningham stated. "This display, the largest ever of the quilt in San Francisco's history, will be a reminder of what we all have lost, how far we have come, and where we need to go in the future to remember, heal, and educate future generations about the devastating impact of this disease."

During an exclusive media sneak peak of the quilt blocks arriving in the East Bay last week, Cunningham told the Bay Area Reporter that the April display will be the largest since the first one, which took place during the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987.

"It will be close to the 1987 display," he said.

In February 2012, 35 12 x 12 blocks, or completed quilts, were on display inside an empty storefront at 2278 Market Street near the heart of the city's Castro neighborhood. As the

B.A.R. noted, it was the first time since 1999 that such a large collection of quilt panels had gone on public view at one time in San Francisco.

AIDS quilt co-founders Cleve Jones, Mike Smith, and Gert McMullin were at the Tuesday news conference, along with gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg, and Cunningham.

Roddy Williams stacks an AIDS quilt block on shelving in a San Leandro warehouse Friday, February 14, as the first of three semitruckloads of pannels arrived from Atlanta.  

AIDS quilt begins to arrive in East Bay
Many of the quilt blocks are now in the Bay Area. In a nondescript warehouse near Oakland International Airport, volunteers gathered on Valentine's Day to begin the solemn — yet joyful — task of unloading blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

It was the first official day that people began taking the quilt blocks out of blue bins, folding them, and arranging them on a sophisticated shelving system, piece by piece, number by number.

Representatives from the AIDS grove were on hand at the San Leandro warehouse, as well as Roddy Williams and Kevin "Chili" Crane, two gay men from the Names Project that the grove flew from Atlanta to help unpack and organize the remembrances of thousands of people lost to HIV/AIDS.

Funding for the quilt's move, renovating the San Leandro warehouse, and helping wind down the Names Project came from a $2.4 million donation from Gilead Sciences Inc., Cunningham said.

The Names Project Foundation used to be located in San Francisco. Its history dates back to 1985 when Jones had participants in that year's annual candlelight march honoring the deaths of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone write down the names of people lost to AIDS onto placards that were then attached to the federal building near City Hall.

Last November, the AIDS grove and the Names Project, which had overseen the quilt, announced that the grove would be taking over stewardship of the 50,000 panels that make up the historic memorial. It was stated then that the quilt would be moved from Atlanta to the Bay Area.

Last week, the first blocks arrived, via truck from Lathrop in San Joaquin County, after a rail ride from Georgia, said Gina Gatta, a gay woman and former grove board chair who was driving the forklift moving boxes from the truck to the warehouse. Each block — there are 5,976 according to quilt co-founder Smith — contains eight individual panels, most with one name each. Around 100,000 people are memorialized, as some of the panels contain multiple names, Smith explained.

McMullin, a straight ally and one of the co-founders of the quilt, along with longtime gay activists Smith and Jones, marveled at the sight.

"I knew it'd come back eventually," McMullin told the B.A.R. Friday. McMullin too has "come back," as she relocated to the Bay Area, where she will help with repairing quilt blocks.

Lonnie Payne, a gay former San Francisco resident who retired to Napa with his husband, Bruce Clark, was among the first group of volunteers.

"Bruce and I came on Valentine's Day," he said. "It's a great way to talk about love."

Crane said the quilt's cross country move was "bittersweet."

"I've been with the quilt for 16 years," he said during a short break.

Jones wasn't there Friday, but he told the B.A.R. in a phone interview late that afternoon that he's thrilled.

"Two parts overwhelm me with gratitude and release," he said.

"The fabric itself — individual works of art created by grieving families, partners, lovers, and friends — is back safe in the city that created it and that's very important to me," he said, referring to the fact that while the quilt is stored in the East Bay, the AIDS grove offices are in San Francisco, as is the grove, which is located in Golden Gate Park.

"Second, the Library of Congress is responsible for curating the archive, which is about 250,000 pieces," Jones added.

At last November's announcement that the quilt would return to the Bay Area, Names Project officials said that the Library of Congress would be the new repository for the quilt's vast archival collections.

Jones said that was important because LGBT organizations need to partner with institutions that will be around in 50 or 100 years.

"That, to me, is a victory," he said, referring to the Library of Congress' role in preserving the history of the quilt.

Back at the warehouse, Cunningham said two more trucks will soon arrive.

Many quilt blocks were sent out to schools, museums, and other places for last year's World AIDS Day observance, Smith said. Once that was over in December, those quilt blocks were shipped directly to the Bay Area instead of returning to Atlanta.

"World AIDS Day saved us one railway car," he said.

Smith, the former executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund, splits his time between North Carolina and San Francisco. He said he'd be staying in the city as the quilt is relocated and stored.

"They did a wonderful job of caring for it in Atlanta," he said of the Names Project. "But as Dorothy said, there's no place like home."