The AIDS Memorial Quilt will relocate to a permanent home in the Bay Area, marking a new chapter in its nearly 35-year life.
The quilt began as the brainchild of organizer Cleve Jones, who saw LGBTQ+ community members creating makeshift memorials to friends lost to the HIV epidemic and was reminded of quilt panels. What started as a small community endeavor now encompasses around 50,000 panels and weighs 54 tons.
The quilt is currently stored in Atlanta, but soon it will be moved to a facility maintained by the National AIDS Memorial Grove (NAMG), a non-profit that oversees a place of remembrance in Golden Gate Park. A conservationist will inspect the quilt panels once they arrive, and once received they’ll be stored in a warehouse near the Oakland International Airport.
In addition, the Library of Congress will house an additional archive of 20,000 documents, correspondences, news clippings, and photographs related to the project. The quilt and the archive are currently owned by the NAMES Project, which will cease operations in 2020 once ownership is transferred.
The NAMES Project has faced funding problems in recent years, running a half-million-dollar deficit in 2017.
John Cunningham, executive director of the AIDS grove, told the Bay Area Reporter that the NAMES Project has been seeking to transfer ownership of the quilt to NAMG for some time. Ultimately, the organizations were connected through Dan Bernal, chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Bernal, who is HIV-positive, is also vice president of the San Francisco Health Commission.
With the impending stewardship of the quilt, NAMG plans to open a “Center for Social Conscience” that can serve as a museum and organizing place. The organization will also launch a fundraising project to ensure that the quilt is always properly stored and displayed.
Cleve Jones is no longer involved with the day-to-day operations around the quilt, but in a December 2017 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, he noted that the project began during a protest over the Reagan administration’s refusal to address the epidemic. “Everybody told me it was the stupidest thing they’d ever heard of,” he recalled.
Commemorating the lives of more than 105,000 people, the quilt panels are three feet by six feet, about the same size as a grave. The last time the entire work was displayed was in 1996, covering the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.