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DavidAcosta David Acosta

David Acosta is a writer and activist who has worked in the areas of HIV/AIDS prevention, health care reform, Native American rights and LGBT rights. He coordinates the city of Philadelphia's HIV/AIDS prevention programs, founded the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative, co-founded the Philadelphia Working Fund For Artists with HIV/AIDS, and founded the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, which successfully sued the NEA. David was a Board member of the Asian Arts Initiative early in its history and has continued to support the organization throughout the years.

How do you see art connecting to social change?

There are schools of thought that believe that art is just its own thing. It has its own aesthetic, and doesn’t necessarily lead or move towards anything. And then there are those who that believe that art can be a tool or an instrument for social change. The way to put it is art as an uncompromised product, and the other is art as a compromised product. In other words, a product that has the means to an end—beyond the aesthetic, obviously. And so I kind of gravitate towards the latter, which is that art can be a tool for social change and can be relevant. And can teach folks, can mobilize communities, can move things, can create social change, can be a part of social change, can be an engine for social change

…For example, a lot of the work that ACT UP did, while not necessarily being artistic, used a lot of arts imagery, or used a lot of text and photos and street theater to kind of create a discourse about HIV/AIDS. So, there was no discourse about HIV/AIDS, and ACT UP, I think, created the discourse around how we could begin to talk about the disease. So, I do think that art can be a tool for cross-cultural understanding…Although I think people see art as kind of a frivolous pursuit, and not as important. I think that was one of the things that, that was driving a lot of the attacks on art—that art wasn’t seen as important.

I worked with a community organization called the Art Emergency Coalition, which came out of the kind of challenges that artists were facing, artists who were trying to receive NEA grants and were being denied grants. The majority of them, obviously, artists that were working to define issues of the body politic. And I think it was interesting because it came to a head during the Reagan administration . . . And so, because the Reagan administration had moved the country towards the right, you know, on issues around reproductive choice, gay and lesbian rights, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So all of those things kind of converged. And then . . . Jesse Helms began to question taxpayer dollars going towards artists who were bucking the system. And interestingly enough, a lot of the artists were either women or gay men whose work was questioning a lot of the federal policies—a lot of what we call the “culture wars.” So it was interesting that they were all looking at desire of the body, the politics of the body, HIV/AIDS, abortion, a woman’s right to reproductive health. So, their work was a direct challenge to some of the kind of official cultural conservatism that the country was undergoing. And then [local artist] Teresa Jaynes convened a group of artists at the Painted Bride [Art Center] to see what we could do to oppose art censorship. And, thus, the Art Emergency Coalition was born. We held large demonstrations in Philadelphia. We tried to work with cultural institutions, all of which, kind of kept a little bit of a distance from us—I think they were just afraid of the group. But we called for the resignation of the NEA chair before anyone else in the country did. We felt that the agency had been politicized to such a degree that it was no longer viable. So, it was an interesting time in terms of looking at art in society and culture and politics.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

I was aware of the Asian Arts Initiative from the beginning, when they were first meeting at the Painted Bride. I’d had a long-standing involvement with the Painted Bride back in the past. We had put together our Living Legacy, which became the first arts festival devoted to the production of work around the issue of HIV/AIDS. So, we did it for three years—about 1988-89. And some of us were actually interested in some of the stuff that was being produced as a result of the AIDS epidemic. We were aware that there would be a canon of work that would come out of the epidemic. And we wanted to tap into some of that—both as a tool for education as well as a way to de-stigmatize and humanize HIV/AIDS. So, it was quite an ambitious undertaking, but we had groups from New York. We had visual artists. We had dance. We had poetry. We had literary readings. And, it was interesting.

So, but getting back to the Arts Initiative, I was aware that there was a group that was meeting at the Painted Bride. If I am not mistaken, I think it came out of some of the racial tensions that were happening up in [the Philadelphia neighborhood of] Mantua. And so, I think it was a way for communities to begin discussions around what were the cultural differences. And I think art was seen as a vehicle for doing education around the cultural. And then Gayle approached me and asked me if I was interested in being on the Board. And I’ve had a long-standing interest in Asian cultures, and so I thought, “Yeah, I would love to do that—that would be a great thing to do.“ And so I joined the Board. I was on the Board, I believe for four years. Four or five, I think. And really enjoyed being part of the Board at that time ‘cause the organization was relatively young at that time.

You know, it’s very interesting: I’ve always thought of what would have happened had the Asian Arts Initiative been in existence during the time that the Hmong came to Philadelphia. I think that the Human Rights Commission did a horrible job. They completed botched that whole thing. And so now we’re the poorer for it because we don’t have a large Hmong community here. You know, certainly don’t have their access to some of their cultural production, which is pretty amazing. You know their needlework—just amazing stuff, really beautiful. But that would have been a problem that could have been addressed. Hopefully now issues like that can be addressed because there is an organization that people can call and say, “Let’s get together and talk about it, and let’s have a conversation through cultural production about what my culture is and what your culture is.” So, I hope that the Asian Arts Initiative always remains true to community, engaged in community, viable to community, central to community—not only to community building but to addressing cultural social change issues that I think are always gonna be there, because there’s always gonna be some misunderstanding somewhere. So I hope it remains true to that because I think that’s its greatest strength. That’s what brought it into existence, and I think, it’ll continue to be a center role that they can play, time and time and time again, as things arise.

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