The night of May 16, 2019, sparkled with glitterati at the Visual AIDS 14thAnnual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA) and Spring Gala in New York. Stunning views of the Manhattan skyline provided the backdrop for the fundraiser, held at the chic Tribeca 360°. The evening of dinner, drink, music and art celebrated the work of photographer Tom Bianchi, choreographer and performer Muna Tseng and multidisciplinary artist Joyce McDonald.
"What’s so special about the Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards and what sets it apart from other galas is that we honor individuals who are truly a part of our close-knit community,” said executive director Esther McGowan. “This personal and grassroots aspect of the event makes the evening feel incredibly meaningful to our honorees and to all of our guests.”
VAVA Voom guests are known for their fashion ooh-la-la, and this year’s attendees didn’t disappoint. Guests dazzled in brocade, lamé, bold colors, bejeweled jackets and artistic headdresses. The evening’s sassy hosts—poet, performance artist, actress, activist and teacher Pamela Sneed and performance artist and choreographer Tyler Ashley—donned matching full-length gold sequined gowns to welcome the crowd in 24-karat style. During the lively cocktail hour, guests could have a live portrait created by fashion illustrator Richard Haines and peruse the silent auction items curated by David Yarritu.
As a prelude to the awards ceremony, the Stanley Love Performance Group took the stage. The diverse and eclectic dancers grooved to snippets of pop music, delighting the audience with their unconventional and energetic display.
Distinguished literary editor Michael Denneny, known for being one of the first to champion gay and lesbian writers and artists in the ’70s, ascended the stage to honor the work of VAVA honoree Tom Bianchi.
Emmy-, Golden Globe– and two-time Tony-winning actress Judith Light bestowed a touch of Hollywood glamour to the evening. A veteran LGBTQ and HIV activist, Light brought to the stage longtime friend Tom Bianchi.
Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Bianchi started out working as a lawyer in New York while painting and drawing in his spare time. He was soon discovered and given his first one-man painting show by Betty Parsons and Carol Dreyfuss in 1980 and given his first solo museum exhibition at the Charleston, South Carolina Spoleto Festival in 1984. When Bianchi’s partner died of AIDS in 1988, he turned his focus to photography. His frank and unapologetic first book of photographs, Out of the Studio (1991), took the male nude out of the studio and into the sunlight and the company of other men unselfconsciously frolicking and being affectionate and joyful. He has since produced many volumes of photos, including On the Couch, Deep Sex, In Defense of Beauty and Fire Island Pines. In addition, in 1993, Bianchi cofounded a biotech company with the mission of developing new HIV/AIDS therapies.
Next, renowned installation and site-based performance artist and HIV and LGBTQ activist Julie Tolentino introduced the evening’s second honoree, choreographer and performer Muna Tseng.
Hong Kong–born and educated in Canada, Tseng has been living and working in New York since the late ’70s. Tseng is the founder of Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc., which brings together artists in New York and tours worldwide. Her work has garnered many awards, including a “Bessie” New York Dance and Performance Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others.
Since the AIDS-related death of her brother, photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, in 1991, Tseng has managed his photographic estate, preserving and archiving his work and overseeing exhibitions, installations and publications of his famous East Meets West self-portrait series as well as the world’s largest photo documentation of iconic artist and friend Keith Haring and other artists from the downtown scene of the 1980s. In 2017, Tseng was honored with the Liberty Award by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Keith Haring Foundation.
After receiving her award, Tseng and Tolentino treated the crowd to an emotional movement piece. Performed in silence, the work showcased Tseng’s choreography, giving the audience a glimpse of the depth and breadth of her brilliant work.
Visual AIDS artist member Shirlene Cooper introduced the last Vanguard Awardee for the evening, artist Joyce McDonald, who accepted this year’s William Olander Award, named in honor of the late co-founder of Visual AIDS.
McDonald is an artist who is passionate about the healing properties of creating. While she works primarily in the mediums of sculpture and painting, she is also a poet and a rapper and a speaker for her church’s HIV/AIDS ministry as well as assistant director of its children’s choir. In July 2015, her artwork was featured on the front page of The New York Times Weekend Arts Section as part of critic Holland Cotter’s article “Art From the Age of AIDS.” McDonald’s work has been included in the group shows AIDS at Home (Art and Everyday Activism) at the Museum of the City of New York, 2017; Everyday at La Mama Galleria, New York, 2016; Persons of Interest at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, New York, 2016; HIV+ Women+Art at Puffin Foundation Gallery, New Jersey, 2005; Curated at Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, New York, 2004; Visual AIDS: Selections From the Archive Project at Robeson Art Gallery, New Jersey, 2001; and taken-up at Judson Memorial Church, New York, 1999, among others. She has been a steadfast supporter and participant in Visual AIDS’s Love Positive Women and Day With(out) Art programs. The art she is proudest of is the art of motherhood, which she practices with her two daughters, two sons-in-law and eight grandchildren.
And just when it seemed the evening couldn’t get any more fabulous, cohost Ashley returned to the stage—this time in a black lace gown (who doesn’t love a costume change?) to demand donations of $20, $50, $100 or more for a lip-synch performance to benefit Visual AIDS. The house went mad as Ashley channeled classic Barbra Streisand while running through the crowd grabbing cash out of eager patrons’ hands.
“Funds raised at VAVA go to support all of Visual AIDS’s programs,” McGowan said, “so more artists can receive art-making materials grants, more HIV-positive women can participate in our Love Positive Women program, we can grow and support our archive of artwork by HIV-positive artists and we can produce more publications about artists lost to AIDS and more public programs using art as a focal point to educate the public about contemporary issues.”