Culture Builds Community

Document Type

Working Paper




This study examines the social and political aspects of the AIDS epidemic through the lens of local arts and culture in the city of Philadelphia, asking these questions:

  • What are the social roles of arts production and cultural activities arising in response to the AIDS epidemic?
  • Are the categories of AIDS politics, such as treatment activism and prevention activism, or distinctions among infected populations reflected in cultural production?
  • Is the concept of a “day without art” relevant only to those who count as artists and to their affluent patrons?
  • How have the changing demographics of the epidemic affected AIDS related arts and culture?
  • Does art work to communicate to the public information about the AIDS epidemic?
  • Can art mobilize people and institutions for social change?

As the study site, Philadelphia provides an opportunity to extend a social and cultural analysis of the AIDS epidemic to an urban area other than New York or San Francisco. And, while Philadelphia’s proximity to New York City affects all aspects of its relation to the AIDS epidemic (and to its entire arts and cultural scene), AIDS-related activism and culture are embedded in the city’s own history and politics and are certainly worthy of study on their own terms.


This paper (February 1997) was an early product of Petty's study of art and social change with a focus on the distinct and varied uses of art in AIDS education, community organizing, and direct action social change strategies. The research culminated in her PhD dissertation: Divine Interventions: Art in the AIDS Epidemic (2000), Mary Stuart Petty, University of Pennsylvania.



Date Posted: 24 April 2017