May 11, 2020

Thomas M. Sokolowski (1950–2020)


Thomas M. Sokolowski.

NEW YORK—Curator, museum director, and art historian Thomas M. Sokolowski—one of the four founders of Visual AIDS and an organizer of the first Day Without Art—has died at seventy years old. His nearly four-decade career in museums included tenures at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (NYU) and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and concluded with a position, taken in 2017, as director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Sokolowski was born in Chicago in 1950 to a father who painted houses and a mother who was an executive secretary. He graduated with a BA from the University of Chicago in 1972 and later received an MA from NYU. In 1984, on the heels of a two-year stint as the chief curator of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, Sokolowski returned to NYU to lead the Grey Art Gallery, where he would serve as director for fifteen years. “Rosalyn Drexler: Intimate Emotions” (1986), “Morality Tales: History Painting in the 1980s” (1987), “Rosalind Solomon: Portraits in the Time of AIDS” (1988), and “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties” (1990, cocurated with Kathy Halbreich) were among his exhibitions at the institution. In 1986, he and ten others were selected to organize the “Aperto” section of the Venice Biennale.

Meanwhile, Sokolowski became immersed in HIV/AIDS activism. In 1988, with Gary Garrels, Robert Atkins, and William Olander, he cofounded Visual AIDS, a contemporary art organization that seeks to raise awareness, support artists living with HIV/AIDS, and create dialogue through exhibitions, publications, and art projects. December 1, 1989 marked the first Day Without Art, an action for which more than eight hundred museums and galleries removed artworks and replaced them with information about HIV and safe sex. Two years later, Sokolowski was involved in the “Ribbon Project,” which spawned the red ribbon for AIDS awareness and employed many homeless women at the Park Avenue Shelter who were paid to produce the increasingly in-demand adornments. That same year, Sokolowski and Atkins collaborated on “From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS,” a traveling exhibition originally organized for Independent Curators, Inc. “This is not the time for safe art, but rather for images that will generate powerful impulses,” Sokolowski argued in a 1990 Artforum article about censorship and desire. “This is not the moment for skirmishes, but for battles.” Sokolowski moved to the Andy Warhol Museum in 1996, where he was director until 2010 and curated exhibitions in forty-nine countries. After a brief time in consulting, he returned to museums in 2017 with his directorship at the Zimmerli Art Museum. In a statement issued on Wednesday, Rutgers University–New Brunswick chancellor Christopher J. Molloy wrote: “Tom’s enthusiastic personality, sense of humor and—above all else—passion for the arts quickly became the essence of the museum.”

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