Pictured Panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
A million, maybe more, solemn faces trailed along the grassy sidewalks that framed some 44,000 brilliantly colored and painfully created quilt panels comprising what might be considered the world's greatest visual symbol of the AIDS epidemic. As the NAMES Project Foundation's 54-ton prized possession lay bold and vulnerable on the historic National Mall in Washington, D.C., just weeks before President Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996, memories of lovers, life partners, family members and friends were as thick on Capitol Hill as the flying political rhetoric.
Cleve Jones, founder of the NAMES Project in 1987 and who is living with HIV, was hoping for a remake of that impactful event this October when the presidential election campaign peaks.
Instead, he received an e-mail on Dec. 31, 2003, from the NAMES Project board of directors' attorney stating 'Your compensation agreement is terminated effective today.'
'I'm suing; they've treated me quite shabbily,' 49-year-old Jones said. 'This is my baby. This is my life's work. Even my father (a retired college teacher in his 80s) said, 'You have to make a stand on this, even if it means losing your health insurance.' I want people to know I'm fine. I want people to keep focused on the bigger picture. This is not about me. It's about a weapon (to fight AIDS) that is not being used to its fullest power.'
On Tuesday, Jan. 20, top-notch civil-rights attorney and former San Francisco supervisor Angela Alioto filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court on Jones' behalf that states Jones was fired by the Foundation because he pushed for a nationwide tour of the entire quilt that would culminate with a National Mall appearance in mid-October.
'It would be unwise for me to comment on the lawsuit since we have not yet been served,' said NAMES Project executive director Julie Rhoad, who became interim director in May 2001 and ultimately took the senior post.
'We are disappointed and saddened by Cleve's actions,' explained NAMES Project board of directors president Edward Gatta in a press release dated Jan. 21. 'The strength of the original idea of creating The Quilt carried this institution for many years. Organizations grow and change and inevitably they reach pivotal points where change becomes crucial. In the last 24 months, The NAMES Project Foundation has undergone an extensive restructuring and Cleve Jones has refused to discuss his role in this change.'
The AIDS quilt, now 1,000 panels and a ton larger than the 1996 version, has not been displayed in its entirety since then, though smaller panel collections hang from ceilings or temporarily carpet the floors of churches, schools or any number of sites across the country for special occasions, whether it's a World AIDS Day program in a federal facility or a high school assembly focused on youth AIDS education. Although an exact number of these abbreviated displays is the source of a debate, they reportedly number somewhere between 800 and 2,000 each year.
'I'm going to go as far as I need to go in this campaign year to bring the quilt back to activism, back to its activist role,' Jones said. 'This board made it very clear, through their attorney, that it was the political aspect of displaying the quilt in 2004 that made them pull the plug.'
Money—the lack of it—is what Gatta blames for the balk on a return to D.C. A staged showing like the 1996 event would cost in excess of $2 million, he said, due to expense for packing, shipping, paying for a space in D.C. to unpack the panels, packing again after the display, shipping again, etc.
'Cleve wasn't fired; we were trying to negotiate his role,' said Gatta, in his final year of eight on the board. 'I admire him and everybody on the board admires him. We couldn't continue looking at every other line item (on the foundation's budget) and not look at (his stipend). We felt there were lots of opportunities for Cleve to flourish.'
Jones was being paid $41,500 a year to serve as a spokesperson, consult on fundraising and be available as a resource. He also received health insurance, a priceless benefit to someone whose medications cost more than $20,000 a year. On World AIDS Day 2003, Jones said he was offered $10,000 a year (retaining his health insurance) as a replacement salary.
'They were offering me $10,000 and a muzzle,' he said, explaining how the agreement would have required he not speak negatively about the organization he sired.
The past seven years have been tumultuous for the NAMES Project, which was teetering on the brink of collapse, weighted with debt, in 2001. That's when letters were sent from the board of directors to each of the 50 chapters that detailed a restructuring plan for the entire organization. Some chapters disbanded. Others signed the required contract without challenge.
'That contract probably affected the smaller chapters differently (than Chicago),' said Modesto Tico Valle, chair of the local chapter's board of directors and acting executive director of Center on Halsted/Horizons Community Services. 'Chicago is the strongest chapter in the country and we do good fundraising. It's no doubt Chicago has a strong voice on what's happening at the national level.
'If you look at assets and debt and where things need to be cut, [Jones' salary] is the last thing I'd look at. Cleve gave birth to something that is a national treasure.'
As quoted in the Washington Blade when the D.C. chapter refused to sign, Rhoad said the contract was 'aimed at eliminating duplication of functions, including fundraising.' When asked how much the organization has raised since she stepped into the director's position, Rhoad did not have an answer, though offered to have the chief financial officer provide 2002 financials. No year 2003 information was made available.
Knowing the NAMES Project was strapped for operating revenue, Jones said his understanding was that if he and his fundraising network could amass $2 million in funding by Nov. 15, 2002, plans for the nationwide tour could proceed.
'By Sept. 30, it looked like we were going to meet [the goal],' Jones said. 'I got a call [in early October] that they were pulling the plug.'
Jones and the two fundraisers with whom he was working tapped into a $500,000 Bristol Myers-Squibb gift, which he said is a restricted grant specifically tabbed for the October 2004 National Mall display.
'The NAMES Project got the check already and it has been sitting in escrow,' Rhoad said. 'We're talking with (Bristol Myers-Squibb) about how they want that money used so it will best serve their purposes.'
'One of the strange things about this board,' Jones said, 'is they just won't raise money. We were getting support from all corners—Democrats, Republicans, activists, all sorts of people of goodwill who share the same ideas about this pandemic. People from groups like ACT UP have some common ground [through Ryan White] now with the pharmaceutical companies.'
'When we left San Francisco [and moved the office and quilt to Atlanta], we had a significant amount of debt,' Rhoad said. 'We're not in rescue and recovery anymore. It's been about rebuilding, stabilizing the institution. As our banker said recently, the debt has been retired.'
'The last couple of years were all about restructuring, cleaning up everything from top to bottom,' said Gatta, who has been instrumental in reducing the 1997 staff of 53 paid employees to a mere dozen in 2004. 'We have not had the luxury of corporate and institutional funding. A direct mail campaign and our panel makers have sustained us.'
While an estimated $500,000 debt may have dissolved, the turmoil surrounding the NAMES Project's future continues.
The organization's national office, located at 101 Krog Street in Atlanta, provides a safe, visible space for the ever-growing number of quilt panels, according to Gatta. The precious works of art, when not on tour, are either folded and resting on shelves in plain sight or they are hanging around NAMES Project headquarters. Panels are rotated and regular maintenance checks are conducted when they come off tour.
'There are a huge number of quilt panel makers in Chicago and probably thousands of volunteers,' Jones said. 'I want to assure everyone that we're going to take care of this and we're not going to allow the quilt to become irrelevant.'