The Quilt Returns to Washington
By Fred Bernstein
Picture of the AIDS quilt on the National Mall, taken from National Institutes of Health website
The AIDS Memorial Quilt hasn't been seen in its entirety since 1996, when it was last unfurled on the National Mall. The impact of display was overwhelming, and impossible to put a dollar value on. But the cost of the operation -- even with the help of thousands of volunteers -- put the quilt's sponsor, the Names Project, in a financial hole.
"We were paying it off for another 10 years, maybe 15," say Julie Rhoad, the director of the Names Project Foundation, which has been based in Atlanta since 2001.
Now Rhoad is preparing to show the entire quilt in Washington again, from July 21 to 25. But the memorial -- and this is sobering -- has gotten too big for the Mall. So the 48,000 panels will be rotated in and out of storage; the plan is for each panel will spend a day on the Mall or at one of several dozen "satellite" locations. Cleve Jones, who founded the Names Project (and left amid a dispute in 2003), says he supports the effort "because the quilt was created to be seen, and it’s been sitting in that warehouse in Atlanta."
Jones, a union organizer in San Francisco for the last 10 years, will be in Washington for the event, which coincides with the the World Aids Conference (it will be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from July 22 to 27). The overlap was intentional. The presence of the quilt, Rhoad says, will send an important message to convention-goers about the human toll of AIDS. "Anything happening in the convention will be amplified by the fact that the quilt is out there," she says.
Rhoad was short on details about how the Names Project would pay for an operation that involves moving the entire quilt, which weighed 54 tons five years ago, from Atlanta to Washington and back. She did say, sounding a bit nervous, that "it would be ill-advised to put the agency in any sort of financial jeopardy." And she asked for volunteers, saying, "We have a thousand of the two or three thousand that we need." One of our big pushes is to say, 'Please, come help us.'"
Maybe they'll be paying the bills for another 10 or 15 years. But none of that should matter -- if you can find a way to get to Washington during those days, do it. You will be moved.