In Memoriam: Patrick O’Connell, 1953-2021

Patrick O’Connell, founding director of Visual AIDS and creator of the red ribbon symbol of AIDS advocacy, died from AIDS-related causes on March 23, 2021 at a hospital in New York City. He was sixty-seven years old.

A native New Yorker, O’Connell was born on April 12, 1953, in Manhattan. He attended Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx and graduated from Trinity College in Hartford CT in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in history. He began his art career in his early twenties, becoming director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo; a year later, he returned to New York City and worked for Artists Space.

After his diagnosis with AIDS in the mid-1980s, O’Connell first became involved with Visual AIDS, an advocacy group that supports artists living with the disease, in 1989. He helped to create Visual AIDS’ “Day Without Art,” in which galleries and museums shrouded their artworks to represent human loss. Hundreds of institutions participated, including the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The initiative has continued every year since.

In 1991, Visual AIDS began the Ribbon Project, which would become an international symbol of AIDS advocacy. Its color represented blood, and its sparse design reflected the silence surrounding the disease. Mr. O’Connell helped organize “ribbon bees” in which thousands of ribbons were cut, folded, and distributed around the city. After their initial appearance at the Tony Awards in 1992, the ribbons soon started appearing on shirts and jackets and gowns in cities across the country.

Some AIDS activists damned the red ribbon as a hollow trend that had lost its significance. But for O’Connell, the results were what mattered. “People want to say something” about AIDS, he told The New York Times in 1992, “not necessarily with anger and confrontation all the time. This allows them. And even if it is only an easy first step, that’s great with me. It won’t be their last.”

“Patrick’s mission in life was rooted in a moment of crisis, but that sense of urgency eventually ended,” O’Connell’s friend Peter Hay Halpert told the Times. “So many people involved in that fight alongside him died, and he was left to deal with living with the illness alone. He became one of the last survivors from that time still left.”

O’Connell told POZ magazine, “I am almost stripped and bereft of contemporaries who remember me as young and cute and vibrant. Part of our definition is the reflection we get from our friends. It’s painful that that is all gone.”

—Reporting by Hank Trout

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.