June 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm EDT | by Will Owen
Unfurling the Quilt
AIDS Quilt, gay news, Washington Blade

The AIDS Quilt during a previous display in Washington. (Blade file photo)

The 1 million annual visitors to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival have rarely expected to engage in an international discourse about AIDS at the event in the past. This year, however, attendees can tell their own stories regarding HIV/AIDS through a variety of creative outlets and add to the already massive AIDS Memorial Quilt that will blanket part of the National Mall.

For the first time in the festival’s history, the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage is collaborating with the NAMES Project Foundation with the program “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt.”

The NAMES Project Foundation, established in 1987, is the Atlanta-based international organization that houses and maintains the AIDS Memorial Quilt. About 8,000 of the quilt’s 48,000 panels will be featured at the Folklife Festival to commemorate the quilt’s 25th anniversary and educate visitors about how art has been utilized to address an international epidemic.

“It’s a lovely collaborative effort between the Smithsonian Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, who are the presenters along with us,” Julie Rhoad, executive director of the NAMES Project, says. “It’s been a delight working with the curatorial team at the Smithsonian.”

The festival starts Wednesday and will continue through July 1, and will be held again from July 4-8 on the National Mall between 7th and 14th streets. Admission to all events is free. Festival hours are from 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. each day and special events such as concerts and dance parties begin at 6 p.m.

“Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt” will include a multitude of craft demonstrations, dance and musical performances, theater, children’s activity areas and interactive discussions that will complement the presence of the quilt at the festival. Many of the featured performances will be by artists who have been affected by HIV and AIDS. Visitors will have the opportunity to help make panels that will be incorporated into the quilt, and to tell their own stories.

“We receive a new panel on the average every day, every year. Right now we have I think several hundred that are already in our possession that during the Folklife Festival we will have Gert, who’s been with us 25 years, bundle and sew them on the National Mall,” Rhoad says. “There’s a whole host of creativity and expression around HIV and AIDS and the domestic and global efforts in expression, all centered and viewed through the lens of what the quilt has done.”

In the event of a rain, the NAMES Project has an expertly organized plan called the “rain fold” to protect the quilt.

“Each time we’ve been in D.C. we’ve had to deploy the plan. Amazingly, what happens is we have plastic and we have a way it gets folded up, then we take it under tents,” Rhoad says. “It’s an amazing thing to see. It’s what happens when you’re in the presence of the quilt.”

In addition to their display at the Folklife Festival, many of the quilt’s 48,000 panels will be on the National Mall again from July 21-25 during the start of the International AIDS Conference. About 40 locations throughout the Washington metropolitan area will also display portions of the quilt through July 27. Visit quilt2012.org for more details on when and where the quilt will be displayed in the area.

“It’s important to work as hard as we can to get to D.C. and to make this display a reality. It certainly gets people talking. It certainly calls on society to really think about our humanity and to really think about our connection to one another,” Rhoad says. “What a gift to be on the Smithsonian stage.”

The NAMES Project staff deeply appreciates support from festival visitors for their cause.

“Support comes in many ways — time, talent, treasure. Each is valued by us,” Rhoad says. “It takes a great deal of support to move the quilt to D.C. It takes even more to get it ready for its next adventure.”

The Smithsonian and NAMES Project have collaborated with one another exceptionally well, revealing the power of cooperation in addressing a vital cause.

“The quilt is the ultimate in folk art. It is done by everybody. These are not professional quilters for the most part,” Arlene Reiniger, the Smithsonian’s curator for “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt,” says. “It’s been wonderful working with the NAMES Project Foundation. They are the ones with the knowledge behind the quilt, the knowledge and resources. What we do is work with them to translate all of this information into a festival program.”

For more information on “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt,” visit festival.si.edu.

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