“Can posters stop a disease? Obviously not! But depending on where they are made and who they impact, they can make a huge difference. They may only be paper, but they are tough and durable,” wrote art director and author Steven Heller in the exhibition catalog for Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters, 1985 – 2010, organized by by Elizabeth Resnick and Javier Cortés in collaboration with James Lapides, International Poster Gallery, Boston, and Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston.
The exhibition is traveling to The Wolfsonian in May; most of the posters in the show are part of a larger collection of more than three thousand AIDS-themed posters being gifted to The Wolfsonian by Henry S. Hacker in 2011-12. The posters, from over eighty countries, were produced from 1985 through 2010 and together comprise a unique record of global efforts to prevent AIDS and increase awareness.
The posters range visually from sophisticated graphics to comic-book style illustrations while thematically they cover the gamut, including shock-and-scare tactics, employing humor to impart safe sex information, and emphasizing understanding and acceptance for those with the virus. The challenge of creating these materials, explains Per Arnoldi, designer of an eerie 1995 AIDS awareness poster produced in Denmark depicting calm waters with a lone shark fin, is that “it’s hard to know whether you should speak quietly and urgently or loudly and threateningly…Or whether you find a visual idiom that does both at once. I tried the latter with the lovely peaceful water surface which is perhaps, once in a dreadful while, broken by the ominous fin of the shark…I mean everyone likes to swim, but…”
“I think this is an amazing collection that over the years will be a very special research tool,” says Hacker. “I get no credit for collecting it. I’m a facilitator who steered the collection to the museum. I bought it with the intention of donating it to a place where it would be in an archive.” Hacker is also the collector behind the exhibition recently on view at The Wolfsonian, Art for All: British Posters for Transport. A newly appointed Wolfsonian Advisory Board member, Hacker previously donated 225 World War I propaganda posters as well as a group of 1960s Italian fashion posters.
Hacker purchased the AIDS-themed poster collection from Jim Lapides of the International Poster Gallery in Boston and Internationalposter.com, who in turn had acquired a large portion of the ultimate collection in 1999 from a European collector. Lapides then worked with collaborators for more than a decade to augment the collection. He was motivated to purchase and build the collection because, he says, “It was too important to be lost. It is perhaps the most significant and largest poster campaign ever. Individually, these posters send powerful messages, but as a collection they illuminate one of the greatest struggles of our time – the worldwide fight against AIDS on a personal, social, and political level. Such a profound effort deserves to be maintained in our memories and I am thrilled that Henry made this possible.”
Hacker and Lapides both note that the golden age of the poster in the western world is long past, but the poster remains a primary form of communication and education in parts of the world not dominated by television and the Internet. Yet, paradoxically, these AIDS posters show how vital a medium the poster can still be, even in the western world. “It’s fascinating to consider how these flat, two-dimensional objects of just word and image can have such power. The best posters can truly shift the way you think. It really gets to the heart of issues that are central to The Wolfsonian’s approach,” says Lapides.
The Wolfsonian’s associate director for curatorial affairs and education, Marianne Lamonaca, concurs. “This donation complements our existing collection in terms of its themes as well as the public health/hygiene aspect of the collection that we have explored in recent years. While the poster format is not as significant in today’s visual currency as it was in the past, in this collection we see a revival of the poster in a way,” she says.
“This collection not only demonstrates the role design plays – and in this case poster design – in public health campaigns, but it also connects to the history of our community, nation, times, as well as research interests at our university,” notes Wolfsonian director Cathy Leff. “It is a staggering accomplishment to have assembled more than three thousand posters from over eighty countries. We are grateful for Jim’s commitment to this collection and humbled by this incredible gift from Henry Hacker.”
The Wolfsonian Museum – FIU
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