Up Against the Wall

Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster

March 6–June 19, 2022

Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster is the first major exhibition devoted to the University of Rochester’s vast collection of HIV/AIDS-related posters. The exhibition features 165 of the most visually arresting and thought-provoking posters from the over 8000 posters from 130 countries assembled by collector, physician, and medical historian Dr. Edward C. Atwater. Dr. Atwater generously donated the entire collection, which also includes a broad range of AIDS-related ephemera, to the University’s River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation beginning in 2007. Today it comprises one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. Both the collection and the exhibition illustrate the wide range of communication strategies used to educate and inform people about this devastating global epidemic, underscoring how beauty and creativity have grown out of the tragedy and destruction of this deadly virus.

The messages conveyed by the posters are both visual and textual; through a variety of creative expressions they serve to inspire people to protect themselves, protect others, and to change their own behaviors. The posters in the exhibition span from 1982 to the present and show how social, religious, civic, activist, medical, and philanthropic organizations have addressed the complex, controversial, and often contested terrain of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic within the public realm. A variety of audiences, cultural norms, and specific behaviors are reflected in the many messages and methods used to share information to prevent HIV/AIDS.

With their international scope and myriad visual languages—from simple hand drawings to slick advertising graphics—the posters in this exhibition demonstrate the urgent need to inform individuals and communities around the world about the threat of HIV/AIDS. In its entirety, the Atwater Collection at the University of Rochester highlights how public health posters specific to HIV/AIDS represent one of the most significant, prolific, and creative chapters in the more than 150-year history of poster art.

The AIDS Education Poster Collection, housed in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, is one of the world’s largest single collections of visual resources related to the disease.

Poster Competition

We teamed up with River Campus Libraries and invited New York State artists, ages 14 and up, to submit original poster designs that help raise awareness around the HIV/AIDS epidemic, open up a conversation about HIV/AIDS, and inspire citizens into action, education, and the elimination of the disease. On exhibition in the Vanden Brul Pavilion are the first, second, and third place winning selections of the contest. These three posters continue in the rich tradition of graphic design, visual culture, public health, and advocacy, through educational and health posters.

Thanks to all of the submissions, and congratulations to the winners!


Download the Gallery Guide!

Exhibition Programming

World AIDS Day Concert | Wednesday, December 1, 2021 | 5-9 pm

Attention Must Be Paid: AIDS Posters in Action | Lecture | Sunday, March 6 | 2-3 pm | VIEW LECTURE
*This program will take place in person and will be streamed live on Zoom.

Neilly Series: Avram Finkelstein | Thursday, March 17 | 7-8 pm | In-Person and Virtual

The Neilly Author Series was established in 2001 to invite a diverse range of authors to discuss their recent publications, their writing processes and the ideas presented in their work. This series is made possible by the River Campus Libraries through the endowed fund provided by University Life Trustee Andrew H. Neilly and his wife Janet.

Speaking Through Silence: A Public Conference on HIV/AIDS Histories | Friday, March 18 | 9 am-5 pm

5th Annual Anthony Mascioli Rainbow Dialogues | Saturday, March 19 | 9 am-5 pm

AIDS: A Matter of Urgency Book Signing & American Masters: Keith Haring – Street Art Boy Viewing | Thursday, April 7 | 5-8 pm

Join us for a showing of Keith Haring – Street Art Boy (6-7 pm & 7-8 pm) and a book signing with Dr. Valenti (5-6 pm) in MAG’s Vanden Brul Pavilion. No registration required. Please note: the time of the book signing has changed!

We Were Here, Screening and Panel Discussion | Friday, April 15 | 7:15 pm | The Little Theatre

The Little Theatre, in partnership with the Memorial Art Gallery, River Campus Libraries, and ImageOut, invite you to a special screening of the documentary We Were Here in conjunction with the Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster exhibition, on view at the Memorial Art Gallery through June 19. The film will be followed by a panel discussion discussing Underrepresentation of BIPOC Communities in HIV/AIDS Films.

Art Meets Science: Humanizing HIV | Thursday, May 19 | 6-7 pm

Join us for a presentation by Charmaine Wheatley and Dr. Stephen Dewhurst in the Memorial Art Gallery’s Auditorium in conjunction with the Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster exhibition. Art and science are both informed by curiosity and close observation. How do they enrich and enhance each other? What can an artist learn from being embedded in an academic health center, and what can a scientist learn from working closely with an artist? Wheatley and Dewhurst will discuss how a lifetime Artist-in-residence at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum came to find herself at the URMC. They will also speak to the innovative use of curiosity, close listening and observation, and narrative portraiture as vehicles that spark humanizing dialogue and understanding. Art that destigmatizes by humanizing. This event is included with museum admission. ASL interpretation will be provided.
This program will also be streamed live to MAG’s Facebook page.
Please note: MAG values the wide range of artistic expression represented in our programming. We also respect the range of sensibilities of our audiences. While we invite you to fully engage in this program, we caution you that some images contain nudity and may not be appropriate for every audience member.

Additional Reading

Thank You to our Sponsors

This collaborative exhibition and all related activities are made possible through the vision and generosity of donor, collector, physician, and medical historian Dr. Edward C. Atwater, and his family, whose AIDS Education Posters Collection is part of the River Campus Libraries’ Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation at the University of Rochester.

Presenting Sponsor

Institute of Museum and Library Services Logo

Lead Sponsors

New York State Department of Education,
made possible by Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson

Supporting Sponsors

Vicki and Richard Schwartz

Rochester Area Community Foundation: Lloyd E. Klos Fund logo

Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries
DKT International logo

Gleason Family Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts logo

Trillium Health Logo

Dr. William Valenti and James Wolk

Contributing Sponsors

Anonymous (2)
Janet S. Reed

Rochester Picture Framing logo

Family of Dr. Edward C. Atwater
Helen H. Berkeley

Candaigua National bank & Trust logo

Gallery Council of the Memorial Art Gallery logo

Anthony J. Mascioli Trust

Fellow Sponsors

Suzanne M. Spencer
Rochester Victory Alliance
Dr. Stephen Dewhurst
Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb
Tamar Carroll and Lars Schumann

Community Sponsor

WXXI / Little / City logo

Memorial Art Gallery Endowed Fund Support

Thomas and Marion Hawks Memorial Fund
Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund
Nancy R. Turner Fund for Special Exhibitions

The exhibition is supported in part by awards from the New York State Education Department made possible by Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services MA-245369-OMS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The book that complements the exhibition is published by RIT Press and made possible by William M. Valenti, M.D.