W. M. HUNT, photo collector, curator and director of photography of New York’s Ricco-Maresca Gallery, was the chairman of Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS:

Felix Gonzalez-Torres was this brilliant, 30-something conceptual artist who had been a part of Group Material, a collective. I think he was in Act Up. He had a huge, wonderful retrospective at the Guggenheim. He was also kind of a sexy dog, a handsome fellow, and people just liked being with him. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, a year after the Guggenheim show.

Felix was a magician. He would do something as odd as fill the corner of a museum with wrapped candies. That would be the piece. And the piece would be bewildering. You’d go, ‘What the hell is that all about?’ Kids thought they’d landed in heaven. You were supposed to take the candy. The works were endlessly replenishable. You were encouraged to touch it and deal with it directly. It may not have been conventional, but it was engaging and magical.

One of the pieces for which he got wide recognition about eight years ago was this billboard project. [It was part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Project Series (“Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” May 16-June 30, 1992.)] Images of an empty bed appeared on commercial billboards around the city. What was great about this piece is that as it was situated in the public domain without any explanatory text, everyone who saw it could interpret the piece differently. For me, it was reminiscent of the Imogen Cunningham bed picture. There was something incredibly sad about it. The implication to me was that now the bed doesn’t have two people in it. Something has happened. Something is missing. Something is absent. To me, I saw it as a testimonial to his lover, who had died. So you don’t literally have the information, it’s completely enigmatic in its way, but it has some sort of lingering emotional impact on you. You bring all of your stuff to it and you go, ‘What’s with that bed?’

The piece was sold to one person, which meant that it could be leant over and over again. Now the Museum of Modern Art owns this work. They too have printed billboards. And if you look around Manhattan, you can see them once more, engaging people yet again.

Outside the window of the [Ricco-Maresca] gallery, close to where I’m sitting right now, is that billboard. It’s visible from the viewing room and whenever I have clients or visitors, I sit them so that they can see it. They always ask what it is. It’s about a block away, so it’s framed by the slightly grimy window. It’s very cool. The photograph has a life of its own, again, eight or ten years or so after its creation. I’m sure for others it has new and different meanings. For me, it is still about the same theme: Our palpable sense of loss in dealing with AIDS.

I also want to emphasize the significance, in the 1990s, of Photographers + Friends United Against AIDS. The founder, Joseph Hartney, was dying, and I went from volunteer to chairman, overnight. That organization helped define who I am. It completely changed my life. I found the whole experience exhilarating, despite the truly unfortunate circumstances of how I inherited the chairmanship. I had a mission and I became a totally different, fearless guy. I’m like Pollyanna. I adore my life in photography. The photography community - - photographers, artists, commercial, editorial - - is full of great people, with the number of bozos and jerks such a small percentage.

The mission of Photographers + Friends was to raise money to distribute for AIDS education and for medical care. Its methodology, at first, was to launch the exhibition, ‘The Indomitable Spirit’ that Marvin Heiferman curated in 1990, and to sell those pictures. It was the product of the labors of Marvin, Andy Grunberg, Brent Sikkema and their team. In the process of doing that, it developed two unbelievably prescient portfolios of the hottest fine-art photographic talent in the world. The combination of those two projects raised a couple of million dollars.

What the organization did was set a standard for the use of fine-art photography in helping to fund charitable causes. It helped foster and shape The Charity Auction. In retrospect, not to discount the booming economy of the 90s, it was also the first to validate the sustained value of contemporary photography collecting. It brought together the worlds of fashion, fine-art photography, photojournalism and the tastemakers of photography collecting as they hadn’t been aligned before.

Photographers + Friends died in the mid-1990s, a victim of its own success. It got folded into DIFFA. I don’t know who actually turned the lights out.

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