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.

A stylized purple penis wears a raincoat with an AIDS ribbon on the left breast. At the top are the words "Protection = Prevention" and at the bottom "Four decades of HIV/AIDS. No vaccine, no cure. Love who you love, don't love them to death."
First Place: Diana McCloskey, Remember It’s Still Raining, 2022, digital lithography from hand drawn elements
The words "End AIDS" made of stylized rainbow condoms against a dark blue background. Below, the words: "Use a condom."
Second Place: Dustin Paden, END AIDS. Use a Condom, 2022, illustration
Photograph of a person wearing a condom stretched over their head. Above are the words "Use your head." Below are the words "Cloak it before you poke it!"
Third Place: Timothy Atseff, Use Your Head. Cloak It Before You Poke It!, 2021, photography and graphic illustration

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


Download the Gallery Guide!

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 Sciences

Lead Sponsors

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

Supporting Sponsors

Vicki and Richard Schwartz

Lloyd E. Klos Fund

Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries

DKT International

Gleason Family Foundation

National Endowment for the Arts
Trillium Health

Dr. William Valenti and James Wolk

Contributing Sponsors

Anonymous (2)
Janet S. Reed

Rochester Picture Framing

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

Canandaigua National Bank and Trust
The Gallery Council of the Memorial Art Gallery

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 Theater, and CITY Magazine

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.