Cleve Jones speaks at an event welcoming the AIDS Memorial Quilt back to the Bay Area. (Courtesy Bill Wilson)

AIDS Memorial Quilt comes home

The world’s largest community art project returns to its roots with Golden Gate Park exhibit

San Francisco activists and officials welcomed the AIDS Memorial Quilt back to the Bay Area on Tuesday.

The quilt, begun in the 1980s in San Francisco as a memorial to victims of the AIDS pandemic, has been stored in Atlanta since 2001.

Now, after being flown to a warehouse in San Leandro, it is set to go on display in April as part of Golden Gate Park’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Activists Cleve Jones, Mike Smith, Gert McMullin and other volunteers began work on the quilt in 1987 to preserve the memory of those lost who they feared would otherwise be forgotten.

Whether due to family members turned off by the social stigma associated with AIDS and homosexuality, or funeral homes and cemeteries refusing to handle the remains, many of the dead didn’t have proper funerals and needed a way to be remembered.

One of The Quilt’s new blocks with panels created to honor the lives of African Americans is among the most requested by display hosts and rarely found on warehouse shelves. (Courtesy National AIDS Memorial and NAMES Project Foundation)

The 1,920 panels to be laid out in Robin Williams Meadow and at the National Aids Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park daily from April 3-5 will be the largest display of the quilt in The City’s history, and mirror the first major display that took place in 1987 at the National Mall in Washington D.C.

This exhibition will feature newer panels and highlight the outsize impact that HIV and AIDS have had on communities of color over the past decade. Data shows more than 38,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2016 with more than half of those cases living in the South and the largest number of diagnoses occurring among black gay and bisexual men.

“By highlighting the most recent panels, we hope to show the current state of HIV deaths and remind the nation of the ongoing and immediate toll that AIDS is taking today, nearly 40 years after this scourge began,” said Jones, who was present for the quilt’s arrival in the Bay Area.

Terry Martin places panels in storage. (Courtesy Bill Wilson)

The quilt, sewn over a span three decades, contains nearly 50,000 panels, weighs more than 54 tons and celebrates the lives of more than 105,000 people who died due to AIDS-related complications. It is the largest ongoing community art project in the world, according to organizers.

“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,” said John Cunningham, executive director of the National AIDS Memorial. “This display, the largest ever of the quilt in San Francisco 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.”

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