We didn’t know it at the time, but the summer of 1996 proved to be a turning-point of enormous proportions for the world – and especially our little corner of it – because that was the season when we first began to realize there might actually be some light at the end of our nightmare, that newly available medications were really working and that, finally and for the first time, hearing an HIV+ diagnosis from your doctor might not actually be a death sentence. But this good news had yet to percolate up through our daily lives – our friends literally at death’s door had not quite yet begun to rehabilitate back into the fully healthy, rosy-cheeked and happy people they would soon morph into – when Richard and I hosted the one and only Gallery+Positive Benefit at our newly acquired Cedar House in Fire Island Pines 23 years ago today, August 3rd. We still had no idea they all weren’t about to die. I had already lost 52 friends, and as far as any of us knew, the scourge was destined to continue.
Indeed, the event we hosted that day had arisen from such a loss. It was during a memorial gathering the previous November held for our most recently departed friend, Steve Metzinger, that several of us, led by our friend Danny Lauferswiler – who himself was desperately ill – had made a pact to honor Stephen in the best way we could think of by starting Gallery+Positive, the point of which was to help preserve the artwork of those talented but as-yet-unsung artists all around us who were simply dying too young to be recognized, with their deserving creations all-too-often being tossed into the trash by those they left behind either because they were family who wanted to forget the whole thing as quickly as possible, or friends who simply didn’t have the space. It was a terrible waste and helping prevent it was a worthy cause for our time and talents.
We also made plans during the memorial for a group of Metzinger’s closest friends to gather a couple of weeks later, in mid-December, at Cedar House for a final send-off where we would scatter Steve’s ashes into the Atlantic. The house had become ours the same week Steve had died and this would be our first use of it. Even though the reconstruction was already well underway, it was still more than sufficient to host the 10 or so people who joined us.
The weather cooperated that weekend, with a beautiful, fluffy snowstorm covering the pines and the boardwalks to the beach – punctured here and there by deer hooves that had passed by looking for those last tastes of autumn – and having that time together also gave us a chance to consider how we might best promote our new idea. We realized that Cedar House, which had great “people circulation” with five bedrooms that each had at least two entrances plus several hallways and generous common rooms, would be the perfect place to hold a summertime benefit in the form of a major art exhibit that could support the work we proposed to do by featuring the work of both those artists who had already died, as well as artists who were currently still fighting the disease.
And, with this realization in hand, we elected a Board of Directors of ourselves, basically, and set to work. We knew the rebuilding would take months, so we settled on an August date and got to work lining up artists and a working alliance with VisualAIDS, an organization that, by then, had been supporting HIV+ artists for nearly a decade and had the requisite 501(c)3 designation for us to piggyback onto to raise money for the cause. And, ultimately, looking back, what we put together was a mind-boggling success.
In all, 27 afflicted artists were included in our show, 11 of whom had already died including both Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, surely the most well-known of those American artists who were stricken by AIDS. Of the 16 artists who were still with us at the time, most attended the event to discuss their art, which was hung throughout the house in dedicated areas where individual artists could mount several works. In all, there were 66 artworks in the show including all those featured in the 24-page program for the event, which I am reproducing here in its entirety.
(I was reminded by one of the artists in preparing this post that at one point all the attending artists were grouped around our pool for a photograph which I have spent weeks trying to find without success. Indeed, I haven’t been able to find any photographs from that actual day in spite of reaching out in several directions. If I do eventually get hold of any, I’ll add them to this post. Videotapes taken that day that were stored at the house were, of course, lost in the Cedar House fire two years ago.)
In addition to the artwork, there was significant live entertainment. During the afternoon portion of the event from 2:30 to 5:00 pm (which only cost attendees $20 to attend) the jazz trio Big Joe (composed of Bessie and Obie Award-winning composer Robert Een who led the combo, Anne DeMarinis of Sonic Youth, and percussionist Hearn Gadbois) held forth on our roof deck from where their lively beat kept up a happy atmosphere throughout, except when the featured entertainment was staged around the pool with three talents who were just starting out at the time, but who have grown over the last two decades into gay cultural superstars: Joey Arias, Raven-O and Varla Jean Merman! There was an open bar to accompany the stunning hors d’oeuvres provided by legendary Village restaurant Flourent and Circo (a sister restaurant to le Cirque, where Lauferswiler’s partner at the time, Tim Shaw, was the pastry chef).
The second stage of the event, from 5:00 to 7:30 was a cocktail-hour reception for VIP guests who paid a little more for the privilege and were able to mingle with the exhibiting artists and performers, and the third stage – the most ambitious part of the day – was a seated dinner in our living room for 55 super-VIP guests who had paid $250 each and were not only feted with a Circo-provided meal, but a cabaret performance emceed by Varla Jean (who actually found her long-time manager among the diners that night) and featuring a bevy of NYC’s most talented cabaret performers including Lisa Asher, Kat James, Lina Koutrakos, Tom Postilio and Joel Silberman.
In addition, a marquee set up in the back yard hosted a silent auction throughout the daylight hours and, on the whole, we really pulled out all the stops to make the event as moving and comprehensive as possible.
Of course, holding an event is one thing, but getting people to forgo the beautiful sandy beach and fork over a few bucks on a mid-summer Saturday afternoon to look at art is another, and we were concerned from the get-go about attracting enough paying guests, though we were not disappointed as we eventually clocked in about 350 people for the whole day, which in those days was an astonishing turn-out.
Fortunately, we had fate on our side. First of all, the sun went behind thick cloud cover along about 2 in the afternoon which reduced the appeal of the beach, and secondly, we had also done something in advance of the event that no one had ever done before and today would no longer be possible: addressed hand-calligraphed invitations to every share house in The Pines with every name who lived there (as many as 24 names per envelope), which were then individually delivered overnight to all 500 houses in town. (This was only made possible because, 1) we had lots of volunteers and 2) in the days before cellphones, every share house had a landline and all those phones were listed – with all the names at every house – in “Emily’s Phone Book” which had been started some years before by the 10-year-old daughter of a Pines resident to help her father, Charlie Ziff, who was dying of AIDS, meet his medical expenses. It could never be done today.)
But, of course, the art and artists were the real stars of the day. With works by both Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring hung in our house, the insurance rider exceeded $2,000,000 and we were required to hire both specialist fine art movers as well as a special boat to transport the artworks across the Great South Bay from the mainland for the installation and then to take them back across the water once the event was concluded. The curators and staff of VisualAIDS were enormously helpful in mounting the exhibit and I believe it can safely be said that no Fire Island Pines art exhibit either before or since has ever come close to equaling the art on view in our house that day.
But even better news is that our whole reason for starting Gallery+Positive in the first place soon began to wane as all our friends and the associated artists we were seeking to help became healthy again. I asked Danny Lauferswiler, our Chairman, before writing this post, if he would mind my saying that, as he thanked our guests from a stool next to our pool that afternoon, he was so wasted away and weak that we were all a little afraid that he might just fall off his perch and die right there, for he surely was at death’s door. But, glory be, within only a few weeks as the medicinal ‘cocktail’ kicked in, he was showing off his well-toned six-pack. “No, I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s the truth.”
Below is the full 24-page program with featured art and quotes from many of the artists who exhibited that day. I hope you’ll continue reading this down to the end. This was a day for the ages, saluting the beauty, goodness and truth so ably promulgated by so many, including some who, ravaged by an ungodly disease, would never fully deliver upon the promise of their creation. Thank you for coming along. I will update this post if and when I am able, and my sincere gratitude to all of those who helped me put this story together.
Again, thanks to all those who helped me pull this together, and thank you for taking the time to take a look. Posting on the 23rd Anniversary of this remarkable day, with love!
© 2019 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.