A large neon version of the famous AIDS slogan “Silence=Death” that was developed by gay artists in the 1980s for the AIDS protest group ACT UP is being prominently displayed in the lobby of the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum next to the National Mall.
“It looks stunning, very powerful, and very prominent,” said Hirshhorn Museum spokesperson Allison Peck.
Peck said the ACT UP slogan would be on display at the museum from Feb. 15 to May 13 as part of an exhibition called “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s.” She said the exhibition features “more than 60 artists and nearly 150 works that show how artists co-opted ideas of brand and market to transform the art world.”
She said one theme within the exhibition explores ways artists in the 1980s “used commodity to directly confront social issues that deeply affected the artists themselves and the wider community, especially the AIDS epidemic.”
One visitor who saw the exhibition shortly after it opened and who spoke on condition of not being identified expressed concern that T-shirts bearing the slogan “Silence=Death” were being sold in the museum’s gift shop. Among other things, the visitor was troubled that the museum was “appropriating” the work of ACT UP and a collective of artists that developed the famous slogan for commercial purposes.
Peck said that in the development of the exhibition and the production of the T-shirts, the museum worked with Avram Finkelstein, the artist, gay rights activist, and founding member of ACT UP and co-founder of the Silence=Death Project, which she said created the original logo in 1986.
“With any product in our stores, we work closely with the artists, or, as appropriate, their estates or other representatives to create and present product to ensure it respects and enhances their original work and their vision for its legacy,” Peck told the Blade.
She noted that the museum store is “fully nonprofit” and its proceeds go toward the Smithsonian’s free exhibitions and public programs, including exhibitions like the one in which the “Silence=Death” art work is being shown.
In a related development, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History confirmed that parts of an exhibit that it first put together in 2006 of picket signs and other protest related objects created by the late D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny remain on display at the museum.