• Steven Heller

AIDs Poster Collection Refocuses Attention on Subject

Adrienne Klein, the Director, Special Projects, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is curator of “Graphic Alert: AIDS Posters From Around the World” (September 1 – 30) at the MSB Gallery (NYU Langone Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, NYC.) The selection comes from the University of Rochester AIDS poster collection that was assembled by Dr.

Edward Atwater, a physician in Rochester, NY. At 6,200 posters it is the largest collection of its kind. This selection of 36 posters from 24 nations suggests the complexity of the task for designers on a lifesaving mission. I asked Klein to discuss the reasons for the exhibition.

I was lucky on two counts: MSB Gallery director Jodi Moise endorsed the idea, and I received some support for my work from the Professional Staff Congress of City University of New York.

This is from a huge collection, what was the motivation for Dr. Edward Atwater to collect 6,200 posters? Dr. Atwater is profoundly ethical.  He is also a serious collector of those things that he thinks mold the future. He first collected medical ephemera; books and broadsides that historically affected the course of medical treatment. There’s a story I could relate of his first seeing an AIDS poster. When he saw that HIV was the subject of a poster on a subway car, he felt that we were at a watershed moment. He wondered how the message was being conveyed in other cultures. Once he had one poster, he was hooked.

What would you say are the most effective, emotional, agitational and otherwise memorable of these images? I chose the 36 based on those criteria! It was essential to include some that activists produced in their struggle to get attention paid in the early years.  Posters for niche audiences are interesting. There’s one produced in Canada with a posterized version of a photo of a Native American man. The text: In the old days it was measles, TB and smallpox.  Now it’s AIDS. There is a poster from India with a beautiful watercolor-like illustration of a family in front of a hut. The husband is beside an oxcart laden with sacks. 

The wife has one finger raised, as though to admonish him. The text, translated from Hindi: Travel to a foreign country to earn, come back quick but don’t go near a woman and don’t bring back AIDS. A poster from Minnesota shows a bare (and famously anatomically incorrect) Ken doll with the text: Unless you are built like this, you should be using condoms. The posters are variously provocative, heartfelt and funny.

The exhibition is at the Langone Medical Center, recently back from Hurricane Sandy, who is your audience for this work? Quite literally, the audience is hospital staff and others who are passing through the hospital. At the reception, some introductory remarks were made by Dr. Susan Zolla-Pazner, a pathologist on the NYU Langone faculty who has been working for decades on an AIDS vaccine. I know that some of her colleagues on staff have viewed the work. Of course, I hope that others are drawn to the exhibition through press exposure. Seeing the posters helps keep AIDS prevention a “front burner” issue, so I think the exhibition should be shown in many settings: galleries for design, medical institutions and venues where current issues are discussed.

Your question could also mean: Who sees these posters in public, in countries around the world?  Many of these posters are from the 1980s and ’90s.  We now tend to learn information from websites, but I know posters are still produced, particularly in the developing world. I want to start a crowd sourced project to gather photos of posters wherever they are on view, whether in an airport, a club or on a bus shelter.

Your selection of 36 posters is a small fraction of the collection. What was your criteria for inclusion? The choice was very difficult. Each poster I selected was formally beautiful. I also wished to express the sheer variety in the collection. What info does a particular audience need and what is a culturally appropriate way to connect? Who is producing posters and on what budget?

I do know the very next poster I would’ve included, if I had more space. The poster, from Uganda/2007, is a photo image of a mother and child with the caption “Thanks to antiretroviral therapy my daughter and I can face life.” This is another part of the story; the story of drug therapy and survival.

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