Art, AIDS, America

Tacoma-Based Artist and Curator Rock Hushka Helps Create a Different Frame for Understanding the Pandemic
by Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli

Rock Hushka. Photo Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum
When Rock Hushka—co-curator of the art exhibit “Art, AIDS, America” slated to open in 2012 or 2013—was browsing through a renowned New York City independent bookstore around 2006, he looked for new information about HIV/AIDS. “I thought it would be easy,” Hushka says, “but the section was in the basement, on the bottom shelf; under a table; in the back corner….” He realized, then, he says, that, with regard to HIV/AIDS—even in New York—“that there was some kind of acceptable stasis in our culture.”

“One of the reasons for the [exhibit] title ‘Art, AIDS, America,’” Hushka explains, “is that in the nineties it became important for people to understand how AIDS was ravaging Africa, India, Southeast Asia. But…from my perception it sort of tipped to a point—where it was easier to look there than it was to look at ourselves.”

Hushka, director of curatorial administration and curator of contemporary and Northwest art for the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), continues: “[W]e haven’t as a culture had a thoughtful way to grieve, to understand the impact of AIDS on American culture, and to come to terms with the fact that there are more than one million Americans who are HIV-positive—but the AIDS crisis
has ‘appeared to disappear.’”

Co-curating the exhibit with Hushka is Dr. Jonathan Katz, director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and co-curator of a recent exhibit that did anything but disappear in the national art consciousness. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was the first gay and lesbian-themed exhibit to show at a major American museum.

A media maelstrom ensued when the Smithsonian removed a video, one of 105 pieces in the exhibit, “perceived by some to be anti-Christian,” according to the Smithsonian’s press release.

Now, Hushka, in addition to co-curating “Art, AIDS, America,” is working to “reconstitute” the “Hide/Seek” exhibit to show at the Brooklyn Museum, then at TAM.

Reconstituting “Hide/Seek” would involve securing 175 works, “or appropriate substitutes” in the case of some of the works, such as fragile watercolors that might be hard to ship.

Hushka emphasized that in the museum world, remaking an exhibition is “somewhat unorthodox” and would only be undertaken by “very ambitious institutions.”

“[W]e’re building a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum to determine the feasibilty of all of this,” Hushka says, taking care to remain elliptical as to other specifics.

A parade of “American Masters” in the “Hide/Seek” exhibit lent it a “Wow!” element.

But, with “Art, AIDS, America,” Hushka emphasizes, “[i]f you only bring well-known iconic blue-chip works you’re going to miss a huge part of the story,” so the exhibit will try to bring in the story of how local and regional artists were empowered “to protect themselves and to articulate their experiences….”

When “Art, AIDS, America” and “Hide/Seek” eventually show at TAM they will be displayed in a modern building of grey concrete and

Tacoma Art Museum. Photo Courtesy TAM
stainless steel that somehow manages to summon forth the Pacific Northwest energy of a seagull in flight, with views of nearby vistas—the neighboring historic districts, waterway, and Mount Rainier.

Similarly, Hushka, whose office includes a French press perched casually on a pile of books behind his desk (“When days are really challenging and I need to do something special to soothe the hard edges, I’ll make myself a special cup of coffee,” he says), brings a new attitude. He is probably the only curator who has not only produced his own artwork—but also used his own blood in the process. The piece, aptly titled Absorb, is showing with other fiber art pieces at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

Hushka notes: “Blood is a strange substance, and one that most people care not to think about—and especially not see. I asked my doctor for a small vial during a routine medical checkup….The reason I use blood centers around the preservation and adoration of Catholic relics, particularly cloth. I am fascinated by the manifestation of the divine in human form….”

An exhibition about AIDS and art is a logical extension of work Hushka began in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his Master’s thesis (“Silence = Death/Action = Life: The Grassroots Politics of ACT UP and Art as and beyond Commodity”) was about the graphic art of AIDS activists, focusing on the Gran Fury artist’s collective.

This past January, both he and Katz had a memorable dinner with a few former members of Gran Fury: Avram Finkelstein and Loring McAlpin.

“I didn’t want to be gushy,” he says, but the dinner was “one of those rare moments that help you to become what you are.”

Absorb, 2001, embroidered cotton (modified bullion stitch and seed stitch) and the artist’s blood mounted on velveteen, 5 by 4 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Steven Miller
Hushka grew up in North Dakota before attending the University of Washington; now, how does he feel about working in Tacoma—far from New York or D.C.?

There’s “a sort of a fearlessness in Tacoma,” he says, “about the complexity of all of this—of art in general—and this exhibition in particular; again, because it is so personal. Grandmothers have talked to me about their grandchildren dying.”

“Tacoma was the first city in the country to have the needle exchange,” Hushka continues, “so there is an engagement with HIV/AIDS—a tradition here….”

Both Hushka and Katz will be traveling far beyond Tacoma—to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia—talking with colleagues, artists, art historians, curators, professors, and estates. The intensive research is made possible by a major grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to TAM.

Securing additional funders and submitting proposals for the exhibit is complex, Hushka says. “It’s complicated,” he says, laughing, “—they’re going to put that on my tombstone.”

Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli, a freelance writer, is also an historic preservation advocate, with enthusiasm and expertise in the areas of food and health; art and culture; the environment and sustainability; law, public policy and politics. Write Karen at [email protected] She also can be found making witty observations about the gluten-free life at, her Internet magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @gfsafari.

May 2011