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Communities of Creativity

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature thousands of participants and hundreds of exhibits during its 10-day run. The festival, which was first held in 1967, will be divided into three programs that explore the creativity of communities.

It was about 30 years ago that doctors in the United States diagnosed the first case of AIDS. Within five years, a collective in San Francisco gathered to mourn those it had lost to the disease. 

From this collective, the NAMES Project Foundation was born. The project began as a series of quilt panels, usually devoted to the memory of an individual who had died. Since then, the quilt has become an icon of AIDS education and advocacy.

The festival program “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt” will teach visitors about the history of the quilt and allow them to sew their own contributions.

Julie Rhoad, president and CEO of the NAMES Project Foundation, said it has been her goal for a decade to bring the quilt to the Folklife Festival. She believes it represents “how art has been a tool for healing, for activism and for economic empowerment in some parts of the world.” 

This year marks the first year the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed in its entirety since 1996, when it covered the National Mall. Instead of all 48,000 panels being displayed at once, sections will be displayed over 40 days in more than 60 venues across D.C. The display of the quilt will culminate in the 19th International AIDS Conference beginning July 22.

“It’s difficult to manage people’s expectations,” Rhoad said of the quilt display. “So much is based on the iconic ’96 image. This is unlike any of our previous trips to D.C.”

For Rhoad, displaying the quilt in D.C. has special significance.

“We’re on the civic stage,” she said. “The quilt is the most democratic of memorials ... made by the people, for the people they love.” 

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