December was the month, and the year was 1991; I’d have to refer to an old calendar to find out when “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (P.M. Dawn) was the number-one song in the land, when Michael Jackson’s full-length album was a critique of race relations in America (Dangerous, featuring “Black or White”), and when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. But if my memory serves me, it was about the same time that a literary and arts journal focusing solely on AIDS hit the newsstand. Apparently Art & Understanding (as it was then called) was such a unique idea—a lifestyle magazine devoted to the cultural contributions of the AIDS epidemic—that even the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press took serious notice and published stories about us; but they also raised doubts that we would survive in the dog-eat-dog world of magazine publishing. But survive we did! Quickly the world of AIDS activists, researchers, AIDS educators and cause-motivated celebrities took us in. We were an immediate hit with them all and before you knew it we were printing a glossy magazine featured at the 1993 International AIDS Conference in Berlin. Those were heady days! Soon we were featuring Jon Stewart and Helen Hunt on the cover; we were no longer a throwaway but a keepsake for thousands of men, women, and children living with HIV.
But some didn’t like the fact that we were making AIDS visible, taking the stigma away from the disease, and promoting understanding. Yet high style was part of our DNA. One of our early editors was Nick Steele—whose vision amplified the importance of celebrities in the fight against AIDS. We were flooded with calls from PR agents—the stars who sought us out were some of the biggest television, film, literary, fashion, and political figures of the nineties—Allan Gurganus, Cybill Shepherd, Carrie Fisher, Ross Bleckner, Roseanne, Diana Ross, Iman, and then in our second decade none other than Dame Elizabeth Taylor and Hillary Rodham Clinton. When Chael Needle, Managing Editor, joined the team sixteen years ago, he was able to take the newly named A&U and brand it so successfully that it was being called “the Vanity Fair of AIDS publishing” by the Utne Reader. Distributed free of charge to hundreds of thousands of Americans concerned about HIV/AIDS, A&U in its third decade continues with its original mission to preserve and protect the artistic, literary, and activist endeavors of a whole new generation of people thriving with HIV.
It’s serendipitous that our Silver Anniversary issue, with articles on artist Duane Michals, Prevention Access Campaign, Bailey-Boushay House, and Ron Simmons, features a kindred spirit: Dita Von Teese, a burlesque star who, like us, looks to the past in order to forge a new future. Her sex positivity will resonate with our readers: “One of my key messages has always been about the ways we can demand safe sex, finding clever ways of asserting ourselves, and, as women, to stop being shamed about carrying condoms and insisting on their use.”
Last but not least, the lifeblood of A&U are people behind the scenes and on the printed page—Harold Burdick, Richard Garcia, the late Christopher Hewitt (whose literary spirit lives on thanks in part to Brent Calderwood), Dann Dulin (who persists in getting A-list celebrities to tell us why he or she has joined the fight), the cutting-edge arts coverage from Lester Strong, as well as first rate AIDS journalism from the likes of Chip Alfred and Alina Oswald. The visual beauty of the magazine has been enriched by such outstanding photographers and artists as Stephen Churchill Downes, Francis Hills, Tom Bianchi, Greg Gorman, Annie Tritt, and Tom McGovern. Speaking of great photographers, Sean Black is our newest gifted photojournalist who has secured some of the biggest names from Hollywood to Broadway. As a Senior Editor of A&U, Sean is moving the magazine into new audiences, both in print and online. And of course the high-end design of the magazine has been executed by such art directors as Mark Crescent as well as our current design chief Timothy Haines. But it’s not just the names, many who are listed in the masthead, but those whose ongoing support of the original mission continues to this day.
I’ve heard AIDS called “a family emergency” and this makes sense to me—many of use have lost a mate, a mom, a dad, a sister, a brother, a grandmother, an uncle to this terrible disease. To everyone, I say: Don’t give up. I haven’t. As Annie Lennox, our November 2010 cover, sang in her AIDS anthem: “Sing my sister sing/Let your voice be heard/What won’t kill you will make you strong/Sing, my sister sing…” Words that any good editor should live by.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.