Reelin’ in the Years: A&U Turns 30

Reelin’ in the Years
by David Waggoner

Dynamite! Art & Understanding Magazine is thirty years old. Thirty, I can’t believe it. And we are still in the fight.
Ten years after the first cases were reported in The New York Times in 1981, Art & Understanding was launched as a creative, literary, artistic, and cultural form of AIDS activism. In other words, a different kind of response to the AIDS crisis. Thirty years ago, my friend Richard Redlo helped give birth to the magazine in the living room of his Albany, New York, apartment. He suggested that I go to Linda Glassman, the then Executive Director of the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York (now the Alliance for Positive Health). She took it on, sight unseen. It was simply an idea but that idea soon had a page count. The first two issues of the magazine, printed on newsprint, were included as a special supplement to the Capital Region’s alternative newspaper, Metroland. Art & Understanding went independent and shortly became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Since its humble beginnings Art & Understanding has always featured the heavyweights of the literary and artistic worlds, advocates who rose to the occasion as the arts communities were being devastated by AIDS. Pulitzer and other prize-winning poets, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and John Ashbery, Maya Angelou and Tony Kushner, Edmund White and Sapphire. As well as blue chip artists Judy Chicago, Ross Bleckner, and Frank Moore (who sadly succumbed to AIDS in the early years of the epidemic). Art & Understanding wasn’t always about being in mourning or sadness; we’ve featured such comedians so as Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard, Lea Delaria, Helen Hunt, Roseanne. Let’s not forget Nell Carter, Joan Rivers, or Phyllis Diller. Country stars Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton. Pop stars Gloria Estefan, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Gloria Gaynor, and Patti Smith. Icons like Iman, RuPaul, Naomi Campbell, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Movers and shakers like Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Dr. Mathilde Krim, Mary Fisher, (then-Senator) Hillary Clinton, Richard Gephardt, Sandra Thurman, Barney Frank, Peter Staley, Sarah Schulman, Duane Cramer, Mondo Guerra, and so many others. I could go on forever.

What strikes me—and what A&U has showcased over the years—is that when an artistic voice merges with an activist voice, advocacy is amplified in a magical way. That’s why we are pleased to feature one of the leading change agents of the HIV/AIDS community: Donja R. Love. Editor At Large Chip Alfred interviewed the playwright , filmmaker and advocate living with HIV, who takes his obligation to pay it forward seriously: “What I would love to create is a miniseries that holds space for the history of Black people living with HIV over the years in a really beautiful way. I realize now that my story and my life and my purpose is directly linked to service. I want to create spaces for individuals in my community who don’t get to see themselves reflected so that they can share their authentic selves.” With stunning photographs by Francis Hills, our cover story shows the power of intertwining the arts and advocacy. And check out plays and play excerpts from Love’s workshop for playwrights living with HIV: the works by Ebony Payne-English, Lee Raines, and Alfredo Trejo III are sure to engage and educate.

Representation is at the forefront of our feature that marks our thirty years of publication, “Looking Back, Looking Forward,” by Managing Editor Chael Needle. We asked advocates that we have featured in the past to weigh in about what we have achieved as HIV/AIDS activists and what remains to be done. And advocate Harry Breaux reminds us in his Second Acts column that we also need to time to reflect on those we have lost and process the feelings without stopping living ourselves. A challenging task, to be sure.

Our Gallery also spotlights the importance of messaging to help create change for the better. Chael Needle interviews Jessica Lacher-Feldman, one of the editors of a new book, Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism and the AIDS Poster, which delves into the University of Rochester’s AIDS Education Posters Collection to underscore the diversity of responses to the pandemic and illuminate how context melds with message.

Looking back, I had no idea how the magazine would evolve over time, but we took our lead from the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS. We have had our triumphs, but we also have had our stumbles. Thirty years of A&U—a long run, and we’re still running. My one hope is that our readers have taken (and continue to take) sustenance from us, some art, some understanding.


David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U: Art & Understanding, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.