AIDS quilt survives, but as museum piece

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- She is constantly sewing. Hunched over pieces of the quilt, the seamstress stitches fraying edges and little tears that have accumulated over the years.

When she is finished mending a piece, she folds the fabric and carries it into a long, quiet gallery. Metal shelves stretch the length of the room.


Each shelf holds five 12-foot-square blocks of quilt.

Each block is made of eight panels.


Each panel, the size of a grave, contains a name.

"There are some spots that are really faded, that you can barely see anymore," said the seamstress.

Here, in a corrugated-steel warehouse in Atlanta, lies the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the most powerful icon in the history of AIDS. In the 25 years of the epidemic, no symbol has managed to capture the sense of rage and loss like the quilt, born in a San Francisco backyard in 1987.

It brought the horror of the disease to America with its vastness and detail - a patchwork the size of 24 football fields sewn from the artifacts of lost lives. It became the banner of the epidemic, shaking the government and priming the funding pipeline that has poured billions of dollars into AIDS research.

Today, the quilt is largely a museum piece.

The panels, which once arrived by the thousands each year, trickle in at a few dozen a month. The more than 50 quilt chapters that once spread the word across the country have dwindled to 16. The NAMES Project Foundation, which oversees the quilt, has downsized to stave off bankruptcy.

While small sections are still lent out each year to about 1,000 schools, charities and companies, the whole quilt - acres of fabric sewn to shame, alarm and remember - has not been rolled out in a decade.

The quilt has gone the way of AIDS in the United States - swept into the background as new drugs have driven down the death rate and shifted the epicenter of anguish overseas, where the disease kills 2.8 million people a year.


The foundation has become more a curator of history, shying away from the activism of its roots. Executive Director Julie Rhoad said the foundation welcomes all requests.

But people who want to rekindle the fire of the past say parceling out the quilt for tiny displays is like letting a sword rust in its scabbard.

They point to the statistics: 15,798 deaths in the United States in 2004 and 40,000 new infections. "The people with the quilt have a weapon that they have decommissioned," said Cleve Jones, 51, a prominent gay activist who conceived the quilt and made the first panel in 1987 for his best friend, Marvin Feldman.

Jones believes he contracted the virus more than 25 years ago from a casual sexual encounter. By 1993, his immune system was fading, and he had lost 40 pounds. He moved to Palm Springs, Calif., to die in peace.

But just months later, he enrolled in a clinical trial for a cocktail of three drugs. The virus has been kept at bay ever since. He is one of more than 1 million people in the United States living with HIV.

On a blustery San Francisco night in 1985, Jones was shouting through a bullhorn at a crowd of demonstrators near City Hall who had gathered to mark the seventh anniversary of the murders of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay supervisor, and Mayor George Moscone.


Nearby, five men with AIDS had been chained to the doors of the federal building for a month, trying to draw attention to an epidemic that was largely ignored as a gay plight.

Jones handed out blank poster boards and marking pens. He told the demonstrators to write down the names of people who had died of AIDS.

They taped their placards to the building. Some signs simply read "my brother" or "my lover." Jones gazed at the hundreds of posters on the wall.

He couldn't stop thinking about it.

After his best friend died of AIDS, Jones cut an old sheet into a rectangle and laid it in his back yard. He spray-painted on five Jewish stars in pink and blue.

Jones saw a chance to touch middle America. He advertised for volunteers. As panels poured in, the quilt was incorporated. A foundation was formed. Celebrities, companies and ordinary people donated money to the cause.


It took more than $3 million, but in October 1996 the whole quilt - then totaling 40,000 panels - was laid over the Washington Mall. More than 1 million people showed up. There were 20,000 boxes of tissues on hand.

The money flowed.

More than any factor, the drugs have transformed the quilt.

Introduced a decade ago, cocktails of anti-retroviral drugs can keep patients alive for years, perhaps indefinitely. While millions of people still die overseas, in the United States annual deaths peaked in 1995 at 51,000.

The desperation that had driven the growth of the quilt seemed to fade away.

Last year, the NAMES Project received 609 new panels - the majority of them for gay men who died in the 1990s.


The foundation today raises just a fraction of what it once did. The quilt was moved from San Francisco to Atlanta in 2001 because rent was cheaper.

The foundation is at odds with its founder, who has urged using the quilt for political demonstrations. After Jones set out to prove that he could raise the money for a Washington, D.C., display before the 2004 presidential election, the foundation fired him as spokesman for the quilt.

Jones sued, claiming wrongful termination, and demanded that the quilt be put in receivership so that it could be returned to San Francisco.

The case was settled late last year. Jones dropped his claims and in return was given 35 sections of the quilt on a rotating basis once he sets up an organization to manage them.

Alan Zarembo writes for the Los Angeles Times.