Visual AIDS Executive Director Esther McGowan to Step Down, Joining Aperture

Esther McGowan, the current director of Visual AIDS, will depart her role at the end of May. She will join the Aperture as its director of development in June.

In 2012, McGowan joined Visual AIDS, the contemporary art nonprofit dedicated to supporting the work of artists living with HIV/AIDS and those lost to AIDS-related causes, as its deputy director. In 2017, she was promoted to executive director.

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During her tenure there, McGowan helped to significantly raise the organization’s profile, expanding its staff and moving the organization to a larger space that houses archives related to artists and institutions that Visual AIDS maintains.

“When I first joined Visual AIDS in 2012, I was thrilled to become a part of an incredible community and to work for an organization with such an important legacy in AIDS activism and visual art,” McGowan wrote in an email to ARTnews. “When I was promoted to Executive Director in 2017, my goal was to grow the organization in ways that were sustainable but that also provided a platform for the high level of programming that takes place year after year.”

A major focus of McGowan’s leadership at Visual AIDS has been to deepen the organization’s connections with HIV+ women, who have historically been marginalized in conversations about HIV/AIDS. The nonprofit’s monthly Women’s Empowerment Art Therapy Workshops, founded by artist and activist Shirlene Cooper, have been staged via partnerships with major museums, including MoMA PS1, the Queens Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum.  

McGowan also helped launched a new research fellowship to support scholarship drawing on Visual AIDS’s archives and a series of oral histories centered on artists. She also expanded the organization’s publishing endeavors, most notably with the publication in 2021 of the first monograph dedicated to artist Darrel Ellis, who died in 1992 at 33 of AIDS-related causes. Additionally, the organization’s longstanding annual Day With(out) Art program, which takes place every year on December 1, now partners with numerous institutions worldwide.

“I am devoted to Visual AIDS and its mission, and it has been an honor to help grow an organization with such an important legacy,” McGowan wrote in a letter to the organization’s supporters. “The generous and inspiring Visual AIDS community of artists and activists has made this a place like no other, and for that I am extremely grateful. It has been a pleasure to go to work each day. I’ve built incredible friendships and helped to shape fascinating and impactful programs and projects. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished, and there are many great things to come.”

McGowan will stay on board through the organization’s VAVA VOOM benefit on May 15, which celebrates Visual AIDS’s 35th anniversary. Visual AIDS’s board will now begin a search for a new director.

“We are excited to continue the challenging work that Esther has initiated, and at the same time want to express how much she will be missed by the Board, Staff, and Visual AIDS community,” the board wrote in a statement. “Throughout she has demonstrated a deep commitment to the organization’s core mission and to its vibrant community of artists and activists.”

At Aperture, McGowan will spearhead a capital campaign as the photography-focused nonprofit prepares to move to a new, permanent home in the Upper West Side in 2024.

In an email to ARTnews, Aperture executive director Sarah Meister said, “With an accomplished history of building engagement and support for artists and mission-driven arts organizations, Esther joins Aperture at a pivotal moment in our institution’s history. She will play a key role in activating our capital campaign and advancing fundraising for Aperture as we prepare to move to our permanent home next year and continue to nurture our growing community around photography.”


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