Scroll To Top

A rip in the

A rip in the


The battle over the AIDS Memorial Quilt may be legally settled, but it has left a trail of hurt feelings and concern over the future of the epidemic's most important symbol

In November 1985, San Francisco resident Cleve Jones glanced at a wall and had a simple idea that would make the world more compassionate toward people with AIDS.

While planning the city's gay rights march, Jones learned that San Francisco's AIDS death toll had just passed 1,000. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write the names of friends, family members, and lovers who had died of the disease on placards. They stood on ladders and taped their display to the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall resembled a quilt.

A little over a year later, Jones constructed the first panel of a fabric-based quilt to honor a close friend who had died. He convinced others to follow suit, spurring sewing bees in gay bars, church basements, and homes across the United States. In June 1987 Jones and several friends formed a group called the Names Project Foundation to care for and show sections of the quilt for years to come.

On October 11, 1987, 1,920 panels made their debut on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. More than 500,000 visitors viewed the quilt during that exhibit. The AIDS Memorial Quilt quickly became the most effective and enduring symbol of the fight against the epidemic. Now with over 45,000 brightly colored panels, portions of the quilt have been seen by over 15 million people.

Today, however, the quilt's public image has been torn in the wake of a lawsuit between Jones and the Names Project that was settled in December. The very public and very messy battle lasted two years and came down to one question: Who controls the quilt? The organization that coordinates exhibits and fund-raising and oversees its care in a massive warehouse in Atlanta, or the creator who insists that it not be allowed to languish as AIDS awareness flags in the United States?

The December settlement recognizes each party's claim: Jones is to receive 280 of the original quilt panels for display around the Bay Area under the management of his new organization, San Francisco Friends of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. He also has been granted sole discretion to nominate four people to fill two new positions on the Names Project board of directors. Further, the Names Project will provide an official link to his organization on their Web site. The Names Project takes from this settlement the legal right to manage the remainder of the quilt as it sees fit.

There is growing concern that the battle has placed the quilt's future in jeopardy. Raw feelings certainly remain between Jones and the Names Project.

Jones charges that the group has let the quilt "languish" in Atlanta, where it was moved in 2001 from its original home in San Francisco. "We have got to constantly be vigilant against the idea that AIDS is over--that's what the quilt can do, particularly for young people who think this is just a treatable chronic condition," he says. "Within the young group I talked to recently, in the last six months five young men under the age of 30 were recently infected. I tell them the reality is, I still believe HIV is going to kill me. There won't be more effective drugs to treat HIV if we don't keep the pressure on the system that creates them. There's absolutely no reason for this organization to be complacent. That has been my consistent complaint with the Names Project board and the leadership, that they keep coming up with reasons to do less."

The Names Project Foundation believes it has a great future. Executive director Julie Rhoad oversees the day-to-day operations of managing the quilt and guides long-term planning. She says the quilt logged 150% more viewings in 2005, with 512 nationally coordinated displays, than in 2000--before the quilt moved to Atlanta--when there were only 198 such displays.

Meanwhile, the quilt is a natural draw for civil rights and arts tours that come through Atlanta. The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities has declared it one of the country's treasures, putting the quilt in the same category as the Stars and Stripes.

Rhoad does admit that the organization has had to limit some of its larger projects because of debt. Jones had asked that the quilt be shown in its entirety in D.C. in October 2004, just prior to the presidential election, but the Names Project says it had to turn down the idea because they couldn't afford it. Rhoad says she and the staff talk every day about how much they want to display the full quilt in D.C., but the organization remains about $100,000 in debt.

That's better than it has been, Rhoad says. "We were clearly on the verge of collapse by the time we left San Francisco, and the choices that we made were clearly about trying to see if we could turn it around." Rhoad adds that these choices caused a few growing pains. "Trying to shift from how the organization used to be run, as this grassroots organization, to an institution with underpinnings that can keep it afloat in good times and in bad does create some issues for people, we understand that," she says.

"But at the same time we need to make sure that we are taking this grassroots organization that had 54 tons of quilt and a tremendous amount of debt and begin to effectively build an infrastructure that will last for the long haul."

These differences in opinion about the quilt's future are what led to a messy lawsuit as the two sides wrangled over how best to manage the icon.

Jones sued the Names Project in January 2004. He claimed it wrongfully terminated him, breached his contract, and caused him emotional harm. While Jones, who is HIV-positive, had founded the organization, he ran it only until 1990, stepping down for health reasons.

According to court documents, Jones says he left the director's position on the condition that "his original goals [for the quilt] be met." He said that the organization promised to "employ him for life as 'Founder' and to provide him with health insurance benefits for life."

But on September 29, 2003, the board agreed to a resolution allowing board president Edward Gatta Jr. to fire Jones, according to a court deposition by Rhoad, if Gatta and Jones could not settle grievances Jones had voiced to the board five days earlier. Jones, angry that the Names Project had not displayed the full quilt in D.C. since 1996 and would not be doing so in 2004, had suggested that it fire the board president, put Jones in charge of the foundation, and have Rhoad report to him.

"He essentially tried to stage a coup d'etat," says Charles Thompson, the Names Project's attorney. "He didn't understand why that was an unreasonable request, and he certainly didn't understand why he would be fired for that."

In June 2004 a California superior court judge threw out the wrongful termination part of Jones's suit, saying the organization had the right to fire him when he threatened to take over the organization. But the judge did let the intentional harm charge stand, along with the charge that the Names Project impeded Jones in promoting what the court called "his life's work."

Jones's lawyer, Angela Alioto, says it's clear the organization was mean-spirited toward her client. "Here's a guy who says, 'Look, I'm dying. I don't want to see this die with me. I want it to continue to be a part of history,' and they fired him. It's the world's largest piece of art, sure. But more importantly, it's a tool, and they don't understand the tool part. It's just stunning to me that they don't."

To Beth Milham, steering committee chairwoman of the Rhode Island chapter--once affiliated with the Names Project but now an independent group--the settlement is good news.

"I'm so glad that he's prevailed at least to some extent," says Milham. Her chapter and several others disassociated themselves with the Names Project when asked to surrender local control to the national office. Still, she and her fellow chapter volunteers continue their work of helping local groups make panels for the quilt.

"I applaud Cleve for sticking with this case. He really knew what to do with the quilt--which is to get it out there as much as possible. It was pretty demoralizing when national kept the organization so hamstrung that they wouldn't spend the money to complete the mission. When we help people make these quilts, we see the transformation--these are not just panels; these are people we are remembering here, and the more people who can get to know these people, the more people will help us fight this pandemic."

Not all the people involved with the quilt feel confident about the settlement. North Florida chapter chairman Avery Garner calls it a disappointing compromise.

"While I admire both Julie and Cleve very much, I think both sides are wrong. The organization should have found a way to keep Cleve on staff--it's a terrible PR move for the organization to get rid of its founder and to kick out someone who is HIV-positive and now won't have his health insurance. Without Cleve these people wouldn't have the jobs they have. At the same time, Cleve shouldn't get any of the panels--you don't split up something sacred like the quilt--it's got to stay whole. Those panels are not his, they're not San Francisco's or mine; they are the American people's, and they need to stay together. To me, this is like going to the cemetery, digging up one part of your family, and moving them to another hill just because you're mad."

He adds, "Both sides need to get past the petty bullshit and focus on what's real here--the fight against a terrible epidemic that isn't getting the attention it deserves to beat it."

Jones is disappointed the Names Project isn't returning the full quilt to San Francisco. The San Francisco board of supervisors approved a resolution to urge the foundation to move the quilt back. "I had been very, very frustrated and angry for some time, but you know, I have to move forward with what the court has given me," Jones says. "They have given me the opportunity in the San Francisco Bay area to use sections of the quilt to raise money and to get it back out there. I'm so eager to get it in the school districts here. We have a whole new generation being infected."

The Names Project has confidence it can become financially viable and keep the quilt around for a good long while. "It is easy to think you are going to give up passion by taking a grassroots organization and trying to make it institutionalized," Rhoad says. "But the reality is, this particular institution could never lose the passion. We are caught up in passion. It's stitched into every single panel. Nobody, in my opinion and in my tenure with this institution, has wanted to remove the past. You build on the past to teach the living, and you build on the future to make sure you are there. We will work hard to make sure the quilt is here 50 years from now and another 50 years after that."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Jen Christensen