This interview was originally published in the special Stonewall 50 edition of Leslie-Lohman Museum’s journal, The Archive, which was co-edited with New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. In 2019, these two organizations collaborated with the Columbus Museum of Art on Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989, a major exhibition that explores the intricate relationships between the modern LGBTQ liberation movement and art created during these two decades of activism, mourning, and celebration.
Thomas Sokolowski passed away in May 2020.
By Ksenia M. Soboleva
Tom Sokolowski served as director of New York University’s Grey Art Gallery from 1984 to 1996. During his tenure, he organized a number of trailblazing landmark shows. One was Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties (1989), which was co-organized with the List Visual Arts Center at MIT and curated by Tom, Kathy Halbreich, Fumio Nanjo, and Shinji Kohmoto. It presented cutting-edge contemporary Japanese art, looking beyond dominant North American-Western European scenes. Another was Interrogating Identity (1991), which he co-curated with Kellie Jones; it is among the first exhibitions to investigate notions of identity explored by artists of color in Canada, Britain, and the United States. And, of course, Tom was at the forefront of initiating activist responses to a growing HIV/AIDS crisis, co-founding Visual AIDS in 1988.1 As a doctoral candidate at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts—Tom’s alma mater—where I am writing my dissertation on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in the United States, I was well versed in Tom’s achievements. I thus welcomed the opportunity to interview Tom this past January to discuss his activism and the role that the Grey Art Gallery has played in bringing attention to issues of LGBTQ rights and civil liberty.
Ksenia M. Soboleva: The Stonewall riots happened when you were nineteen. I’m assuming this was when you were pursuing your undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. Were you aware of the riots, and what did they mean to you at that stage in life?
Thomas Sokolowski: I was aware of them but very much from a distance. They weren’t publicized outside of New York as much as one might think. Although I was a gay person, the fact was that they occurred around the time of the Vietnam War, and I was much more involved in that since I could be drafted. There was a lottery and they called you up by number. I evaded the draft because my number was 218, and they had only gotten up to 180. At that time I was also studying 18th- and 17th-century art; my interest in the contemporary scene and my activist phase came much later.
KMS: And you were studying Italian art back then?
TS: In those days you’d have fifteen majors until you finally found your passion. I think now everyone comes in and wants to be pre-law, without even knowing who Shakespeare was. But yes, I was an art history major focusing on Baroque art. That was my art historical concentration when I started graduate school at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
KMS: Looking back as an art historian now, and speaking from an art historical perspective, how do you think the Stonewall riots have affected the representational strategies of queer artists?
TS: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think they really did at the time. Everyone felt so liberated to go out, play, and run in the streets. But the AIDS crisis really catalyzed everything; Stonewall just opened the door. One thing you have to remember about Stonewall is that it was known for being a drag bar. It was the drag queens who really put up a fight. At that point a lot of people—particularly people of influence, including half of the MoMA staff who was probably gay—didn’t want anything to do with drag queens. The AIDS crisis, on the other hand, hit everyone: rich, poor, old, young. And I think that was the first time that the gay community really came together. Also the economic downturn of 1987 played a part. In the early 1980s, art was selling and people were making lots of money, and then all of a sudden there was no money; the market had crashed. So artists said: let’s make art about things we really care about, because we know we’re not going to sell anyway, so what the hell! What was very odd is that that art got commodified as well. But the art world then began to use activism in all sorts of ways. Artists and curators realized art could communicate something that perhaps couldn’t get said in government, or couldn’t get said in the schools, etc. And that’s when people like David Wojnarowicz and others used their sexuality and the AIDS crisis as a leitmotif in their work.
KMS: You were appointed as the director of the Grey Art Gallery in 1984. Were you already aware of the gravity of the AIDS crisis at that point, or was it more like a rumor on the streets?
TS: No, I don’t think we really knew about it at that point. The first article that appeared was in the summer of 1981, in the New York Times, and the headline was “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.”2 Then it all started. The Grey Art Gallery mounted some of the first AIDS-related art shows anywhere. Juan Gonzalez created a window installation titled Don’t Consecrate, Mourn. in 1987, even before Bill Olander commissioned the Let the Record Show… window installation at the New Museum. We showed Rosalind Solomon’s Portraits in the Time of AIDS in 1988. Then Robert Atkins and I co-curated From Media To Metaphor in 1994; it toured with ICI [Independent Curators International] to over ten museums all over North America.
KMS: Yes, that was such an important exhibition, and really showed that there was a wide range of art responding to the AIDS crisis, from documentary photography, to more metaphorical gestures. As a spin-off to my earlier question, how do you think the AIDS epidemic affected artists’ representational strategies?
I don’t think there was really an AIDS style. Some work was “grand guignol” like Andres Serrano, some was fastidious painting. Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt created work dealing with the AIDS crisis. Other artists, like David Wojnarowicz, wanted to shock. Others chose to be more rebarbative, while others were more mournful. Artists also experimented with strategies of remembrance; I don’t think there was any one way to represent it. There was also, I would say, an AIDS graphics or typography. That I think is interesting—when people see that typeface now, they know it was created for the purpose of activism.
KMS: Was there a turning point for you when you realized that AIDS was not merely a medical state of emergency, but a political one as well—that people weren’t just dying because of the virus but because of government neglect?
TS: I happened to be in London in 1988 during the first International World AIDS Day, and I remember reading about the high numbers of HIV infections on the front pages of various British newspapers. And it struck me that those numbers stood in for people, not specimens. When I came back, I invited Robert Atkins, Gary Garrels, and Bill Olander to my apartment on Washington Square West for dinner. That’s how Visual AIDS started. We held the first meeting at the Grey Art Gallery. We invited all our friends who were critics, gallerists, and worked in museums. I think we counted thirty-seven people or so at the first meeting. We decided we would be a kind of publicity agency. This took place during Nicholas Nixon’s show at MoMA which many people, particularly ACT UP’ers, hated, because his subjects looked terribly cadaverous. We decided we had to do something more positive and that’s how we came up with “A Day Without Art.”3
But what we found out—and this is crucial—was that while a lot of people were interested, either the directors themselves or curators who took it to their directors, would say: ‘Well, we can’t really close, because, you know, we have budgeted for a certain number of days of admissions dollars.’ If it was a big museum, that would come down to $25,000 or $30,000, and the budget can’t take that hit. Or, I remember since “A Day Without Art” was going to fall on a Friday, Norman Kleeblatt from the Jewish Museum, said: ‘Tom, we want to participate, but the one thing we cannot do is open on the Sabbath because the shit would really hit the fan.’ So basically we decided that instead of having a cookie-cutter formula, where everyone does the same thing, everyone would do what was appropriate to their venue, their history, their geography, their constituency. And that really became the leitmotif of Visual AIDS, at least for a long while. It meant that rather than you-do-what-I-do, people came up with the most incredible projects, because institutions are different, and their expectations are different. I was in charge of marketing and public relations, and I just started calling people around the country. When we ended that year I think we had 685 institutions on our poster.
And then every year after that first “A Day Without Art” on December 1, 1989, we did something different. For example, the following year we began “Night Without Light,” where building and theater marquees turned off their lights for 15 minutes. In 1991 , the Visual Aids Artist Caucus came up with the Red Ribbon but we weren’t sure how to launch it. The Tony Awards were about to happen, and Patrick O’Connell’s [Visual AIDS director] used his Broadway connection to get practically every presenter and nominee at the Tony Awards to wear the red ribbon. And it happened simply because you could call people and they took your call. This is not to say that the art world is made up of only gay people—that’s foolish—but there were probably more gay people in the art world vs. in banking or medicine. And the art world was hit very hard.
What’s also very important is the fact that Visual AIDs became a kind of template for organizations in the classical music world, the theater world, the dance world. By the end, we were reaching 90 million people annually—it was truly extraordinary. Even Bravo and MTV had “a moment without television,” where the screen went black for a minute. One particularly striking memory for me happened when I was invited to New Zealand to speak at an arts council. I met this young Maori fellow who was studying to be a curator. He brought with him this very old woman—who I learned was his grandmother—and who wore this cloak made of feathers. When she opened the cloak, she had pinned twenty or thirty red ribbons inside of it. And she said—her grandson was translating from Maori—’I want to thank you for giving me this, because my other grandson died.’ I was moved to tears to encounter this across the world.
KMS: I’m sure you’re aware of the ACT UP protest that took place at the David Wojnarowicz exhibition in July, during which several members of ACT UP NY gathered at the Whitney Museum of American Art to protest the museum’s failure throughout the exhibition to acknowledge that AIDS is an ongoing epidemic. Do you agree that there is a certain danger in exhibition-making to historicize political/medical/social crises that are in fact still ongoing?
TS: I think there’s always a danger, even if it’s very recent history. Many of us remember David Wojnarowicz and feel we shouldn’t put words in his mouth. How does one know what he would have done today? He was a very angry young man, and he had every right to be for all sorts of reasons. But if you say what David would have done, you’re manipulating him for your needs. And although it’s for a good cause, I find that difficult. When I was at the Warhol Museum, people would ask me: Oh what would have Andy done with the internet? And I would say: I’m sure he would have done something interesting, but I don’t know. I think David would not have wanted to be seen as a glyph or a meme.
KMS: How has being an AIDS activist informed your curatorial practice?
TS: I mentioned earlier, I was studying 17th- and 18th-century art, and also took classes in French and medieval art at the Institute of Fine Arts. What I took away was that I was very much an iconographer. That’s why I like the art of the Baroque. What mattered was that it wasn’t just a beautiful sculpture by Bernini, but that it was for a higher purpose, maybe to exalt Louis XIV or to exalt the mystery of the church. It wasn’t just about the beautiful object; it was the beautiful object that stood in for something else. The same thing is true with some works of art of the AIDS crisis. Someone like Martin Wong, for example, and his use of the iconography of modern life to tell a story.
KMS: In the past, you have spoken about the role of art galleries and museums during the AIDS crisis, and their activist potential. As we are finding ourselves in another turbulent political climate, what do you think the role of art institutions is today—and what could their role be?
TS: What strikes me when I do visit galleries—which I’m not doing as much as I have in the past—is that I haven’t seen that much work about Trump. There is a lot of literature but not much in the visual arts. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen recently is these caricature paintings by Jim Carrey. They’re quite good actually, and very large. But generally there hasn’t been much. I’d like to see some intelligent artwork critiquing Trump—it’s way too easy to mock his stupidities. I guess some of the most provocative things are happening on television, such as Saturday Night Live and such. Trump is a genius at marketing, I’ll give him that. So I find it interesting that he has been rebuked and satirized in the same medium that he uses to his own affect.
Thomas Sokolowski currently serves as Director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Ksenia M. Soboleva is an independent curator and PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
 Visual AIDS is a non-profit organization that utilizes art to raise AIDS awareness.
2 Lawrence K. Altman, “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS,” New York Times, July 3, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html.
3 The idea was to ask museums and art institutions to close their doors (or darken their galleries) in a day of action and mourning to make people pay attention to the effects of AIDS on the art world and our society at large.