Visual Aid


Photograph by Michael Johnstone, from Saints and Sinners: Untitled, from Mrs. Vera’s Daybook (pictured: Mrs. Vera, aka David Faulk in front of Duboce Bikeway Mural by Mona Caron)
Art should not have to stop for illness. Where would we be if Matisse gave up making art after he started using a wheelchair post-cancer surgery and painting canvases became more difficult? And where would be without those who cared for, supported, or assisted Matisse during this time in his career?

We’d be without his cut-paper masterworks, without Icarus, without Jazz, without La Gerbe—and without Matisse’s own revelation that illness did not block his creative path but in fact liberated him. We’d be without what he called his “second life.”

Visual Aid, a Bay Area-based nonprofit, seeks to encourage those second lives—and third and fourth and fifth ones, too. Its mission is to provide supportive services to visual artists who are living with life-threatening illnesses. Borne out of the urgency of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Visual Aid began by helping artists living with HIV/AIDS. Over its twenty-three years, the nonprofit has had second lives as well, expanding its services to include those affected by other life-threatening illnesses, such as breast cancer and hepatitis C. Alongside its long-term mainstay, distributing up to $25,000 in art supplies to those in need each year, Visual Aid has built an array of programs that support member artists directly and nurture the arts in general, from grantmaking and career managment resources, to workshops, lectures, arts education, and maintaining archives open to curators and scholars. Now, in support of its mission, Visual Aid has shifted gears, coming up with new ways to raise funds and present the work of artists to the public.

One innovative way that Visual Aid has developed to generate support and soften the blow of the economic downturn is the Visual Aid Pillow Project. Launched this year, the project offers limited edition pillows, whose designs were created by member artists and artists who support the nonprofit. The project makes good on Visual Aid’s mission objectives to support artists and also promote their work. Visual Aid is looking into other products to expand this income stream and exposure for its artists, Julie Blankenship, Visual Aid’s executive director, notes.

Visual Aid also decided to increase exposure in a different way by recently opting to retire its annual fundraiser, Big Deal, in favor of smaller, more intimate fundraising events. For eighteen years, the live and silent auctions and fixed-price sales that formed the centerpiece of Big Deal were successful, but, with donations of artwork from 500-plus people and the labor and expense involved to mount it, the event became somewhat unwieldy. “It was a beloved event, but it was so gigantic it almost outgrew itself,” she says. “What we decided to do was something fairly radical and forego our big event.”

A pared-down events budget and events staff have made for a sleeker but not less challenging approach to raising funds, she shares.

“This year is my tenth anniversary at Visual Aid and, in celebration of that and in recognition of all the people who have contributed so much to Visual Aid over the years, we’re going to be having ten parties that honor different members of our constituency, from artists in the community, galleries, vounteers, and donors who have supported us,” Blankenship says.

The first party and fundraiser was held in March at the mid-century home of Daniel Goldstein, co-founder of Visual Aid. The second will be held this month at Varnish Fine Art, where some of that gallery’s artists, including Isabel Samaras and Jennybird Alcantara, will donate twenty-five percent of the sales of their work to Visual Aid.

Blankenship foresees that this multi-event approach will expand the organization’s audience and add new supporters to its rolls.

Visual Aid Gallery. Photo by David Lees / The Studio Deux

While Big Deal offered supporters one chance to connect with the work of Visual Aid in person, multiple events will provide a continuous way to help raise funds through the purchasing of art, learn more about the nonprofit’s work, and interact with art and artists more often, she adds.

Artists’ work will also receive a more sustained focus in exhibitions that feature one or a few artists, adds Blankenship. “We’ve received a lot more attention from bloggers, people coming to the gallery, and a lot of other gallerists. Several of the area’s top gallery owners including Catharine Clark, Jen Rogers, Chandra Cerrito, and Eli Ridgway recently joined our advisory board and that’s been a huge help [to Visual Aid]. Greater exposure boosts the careers of our artists by connecting them with galleries and potentially increases sales of their work.”

Visual Aid’s new gallery space in the historic Mechanics’ Institute Building in downtown San Francisco helps enormously with this outreach, as well.

Says Blankenship: “It’s an absolutely jewel of a gallery…and it’s attracting a lot of attention! We’re in our twenty-third year and, only two years ago, after twenty-one years of serving the community, were we able to open a gallery. When Visual Aid was founded there was really no time to organize exhibitions. All of the energy of the organization was focused on providing artists who were ill with the paint and canvas they needed to do their last works that they would be creating in their life.” That has changed over time, with exhibitions in community and corporate spaces, and, now, the new gallery space, whose exhibitions are free and open to the public.

Saints and Sinners, a recent exhibition at Visual Aid Gallery, was curated by Blankenship and brought together two couples who have collaborated to produce art: David Faulk and Michael Johnstone, and Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. “We’ve had a great response to Saints and Sinners and other exhibitions at Visual Aid Gallery and our satellite venues, with an average of 135,000 visitors a year,” notes Blankenship.

Visual Aid Gallery is establishing a reputation for excellence and cutting-edge exhibitions. The Gallery has begun to include work by artists from the larger community and beyond, which has drawn new visitors and energy around Visual Aid artists’ work. “That’s kind of wonderful because instead of saying, ‘Look here’s an exhibition of works by people who are ill,’ it’s about the artwork,” says Blankenship. A Thin Line is one exhibition that garnered special attention from the press, with works by Goldstein, David Wojnarowicz, Philip Zimmerman, and David King.

“‘.…[T]here’s a thin line between the inside and the outside, a thin line between thought and action and that line is simply made up of blood and muscle and bone,’” notes Blankenship, quoting artist, activist and writer Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. “The works in A Thin Line are historical reminders of the American experience of this thin line in the early years of AIDS. Through dialogue stimulated by exhibitions such as this, we are beginning to take a look back at the dark AIDS years and integrate them into our present day lives and culture.”

In addition, Visual Aid is also expanding its corporate-funded exhibition program, which affords the opportunity for thousands upon thousands to be introduced to an artist’s work and to help raise funds through the purchase of art.

In a nutshell, says Blankenship, “we’ve been able to leverage Visual Aid’s funding to promote our artists and be more mission-based than in the past.”

Exhibited as part of Saints and Sinners, an image from the documentation of Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, and Love Art Laboratory’s Purple Wedding to the Moon, 2012
Visual Aid is also launching a vision program, which will provide member artists with access to ophthalmologists for medical eye and vision care, and pair them with optometrists to receive free eyewear, donated by eyewear companies.

The nonprofit is also collaborating with a new museum, the Museum of Northern California Art (monCA). Based in Chico, California, the museum doesn’t have a permanent space so was able to loan pivotal works from its collection. Visual Aid Gallery has included selections from the collection in its current exhibition Seen, including prints and paintings by David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Mel Ramos, alongside art by Visual Aid artists such as Annie Sprinkle and Peter Max Lawrence.

“Wherever we can, Visual Aid is using the economy as a creative force for positive change,” says Blankenship. “These days, the organization struggles for funding as do all other arts nonprofits—but the good news is that change creates opportunities. As the needs of artists with life-threatening illnesses continues to grow, Visual Aid is becoming more entrepreneurial. We’re changing our approach to fundraising and reducing expenses in order to continue essential services to strengthen and sustain the creative production of artists with life-threatening illnesses and present outstanding exhibitions of life-affirming artwork to wider audiences.”

—Chael Needle

Visual Aid Gallery is located at 57 Post Street, San Francisco. For more information, log on to

August 2012