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Wilton Manors exhibit explores 30 years of AIDS activism

A new museum exhibit will share the stories of HIV and AIDS, looking back on 30 years of the health crisis and featuring one of its earliest activists, Larry Kramer.

“AIDS Crisis in America: 30 Years of ACT UP – A Convergence of Disease, Art and Human Resilience” will open March 8 and run eight weeks at the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center, 1201 NE 26th St., Suite 111, Wilton Manors. 

One exhibition space will have 11 paintings by pop culture artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990. Haring was best known for colorful, whimsical paintings featuring stick figures hugging and dancing to social messages.

A second gallery space will be dedicated to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an advocacy group created in 1987 to help people living with HIV or AIDS. The exhibit includes posters, stickers, fliers and news articles from the group’s early days, as well as footage of Kramer, one of its founders.

“Understanding history shows you what can happen in spite of all the odds,’’ said Hugh Beswick, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Wilton Manors museum. “History is very important in terms of hope.”

Also important: hearing the stories from the people who lived them. Beswick said he invited Kramer and others who were active during the early years of the AIDS crisis because many of them are in their 70s and 80s. 

“We don’t want their stories to be lost,’’ Beswick said.

Kramer, 81, will be part of a free book signing party from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. March 9 at the museum. His books include “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays’’ and “Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist.” He also wrote the 1985 play, “The Normal Heart,” which HBO adapted into a 2014 movie of the same name starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts

“He’s an in-your-face kind of personality. Like him or not, you can’t tell the story of HIV and AIDS without including Larry Kramer. We need him in one way or another to include him in our story,” Beswick said.

Kramer also co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that was instrumental in raising awareness about the disease in the 1980s and lobbying the government to take action on HIV research and drug treatments. 

“He wasn’t just an activist,” Beswick said. “He was an unusually smart activist who could connect the dots between the politics and medicine.” 

Also at the book signing: Kevin Sessums, former Interview magazine editor and Vanity Fair journalist and author of last year’s memoir, “I Left It on the Mountain.”

The exhibit’s opening coincides with two other events. Kramer will headline another event called “An Evening with Larry Kramer,” set for 8 p.m. March 10 at the Sunshine Cathedral MCC, 1480 SW Ninth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. He will be interviewed on stage by Sessums about AIDS and the LGBTQ movement. 

“You can’t tell one without the other,’’ said Beswick, of the two movements. “They are so closely aligned in terms of history.” 

That event, which also features a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida, costs $25 per person. 

Also, from noon to 5 p.m. March 11, there will be a free symposium on HIV and the millennial generation at ArtServe, 1350 E Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. About eight local speakers ages of 17 to 32 will share their stories of activism and struggle. Panelists include transgender youth and their coming-out stories.

“I hope that some of the takeaway for people is courage to overcome stigma and move forward to live as big a life as you can,’’ said Beswick. 

AIDS Crisis in America: 30 Years of ACT UP — A Convergence of Disease, Art and Human Resilience’’  opens March 8 at the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center, 1201 NE 26th Ave., Wilton Manors. The museum is free to the public. There is a suggested $5 donation. Visit worldaidsmuseum.org or call 954-390-0550.  

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