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AIDS Quilt Moves To Downtown Atlanta And Into Digital Realm

June 12,2017

Source: Myke Johns, 90.1 WABE FM

The AIDS Quilt has found a new home in downtown Atlanta. Now, as the quilt turns 30, it is preparing to make the move to a digital home as well. The NAMES Project Foundation, which acts as custodian for the more than 49,000 panels, has a new storefront on Luckie Street.

"Our last location [in Midtown], we had predominantly warehouse and a small space to engage people," Julie Rhoad said.

Rhoad is President and CEO of The NAMES Project, which has been headquartered in Atlanta since 2001. The new location affords the organization much more room for offices and to interact with groups and individuals coming to see the quilt. While portions of the AIDS Quilt are on display there, the bulk of it, which amounts to roughly 54 tons of quilt blocks, has been moved to a warehouse in Tucker. 

The quilt today is used primarily as a tool for advocacy and education. In that arena and with the foundation’s move to its new Luckie Street address, the operative word is “access.”

"We are easier to get to, that’s really the bottom line," Rhoad said. "Not only is it a beautiful space, our landlords are artists so they understand the value of material culture and what art can do. When we have a group in here, we have the opportunity to help them see their story in the quilt and to see the story of other people's lives and other communities just by how we display quilt sections."

In addition to displaying panels at its Luckie Street space, the NAMES Project is also digitizing some of its materials.

The NAMES Project is developing a new way to display the quilt digitally. That’s where Dr. Anne Balsamo comes in. She is a member of the NAMES Foundation's board and dean of the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas, at Dallas. 

"We call this AIDS Quilt Touch," she said, referring to a touch screen table on display in the storefront, "and it enables you to zoom into the quilt."

The program allows you to explore the entire virtually stitched together AIDS Quilt. 

"That eventually will be the architecture that puts [the quilt's] stories together with the images," Rhoad said. "I think that once you're in a digital platform, people still want to dive into the fabric."

Rhoad and Balsamo have been collaborating on this idea for the last fifteen years, but only recently received enough money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to make it a reality. 

Putting the entire quilt and its millions of stories literally at people’s fingertips will further the NAMES Project's mission in untold ways. If Rhoad and Balsamo have their way, some day in the future, one will be able to pull the quilt up on a computer, zoom in on a panel, and read the stories behind the names found there. Indeed, it’s the countless stories that the quilt contains that keeps this thirty year-long project vital.

"This is not a dead monument," Balsamo said, "this is a living memorial. Its work is not done."

The new home of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is now open on Luckie Street in downtown Atlanta. They hope to make the AIDS Quilt Touch program available this December.