Since a trip the World Arts & Cultures professor made to India in 2004, "Make Art/Stop AIDS" has grown into a project of international stature, with a worldwide network of artists intervening in the AIDS epidemic.
By Wendy Soderburg for UCLA Today
It's a bit of a paradox: David Gere — professor of World Arts and Cultures (WAC) and founder/director of the UCLA Art | Global Health Center — tends to think of himself as a "small-town" guy.
It's true that he was born and raised in a quiet community in central New York, and that he attended tiny Oberlin College in Ohio. And it's also true that part of the reason he enjoys teaching at UCLA — one of the largest urban universities in the country — is that he thinks of his department, WAC, as a small village within a large university metropolis.
In March, Gere worked with a young woman named Mpho, a local collaborator for the "Through Positive Eyes" project in Johannesburg. The two learned how to take photos illuminated by natural light.
But this small-town guy couldn't have gotten to where he is without being a global thinker. After graduation from Oberlin, Gere moved to New York to study dance, followed by two-and-a-half years in Madurai, India, where he learned to speak the local tongue (Tamil) while teaching music, religion and ethics to college students. Back in the States, he received his master's degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and his Ph.D. in dance history and theory at UC Riverside. From 1985 to 1993, he lived and worked in San Francisco as an arts critic for various newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Gere arrived at UCLA in 1993, and his work in WAC has earned kudos from students and colleagues ever since. He was recently awarded the $30,000 Gold Shield Faculty Prize — sponsored by Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA — a prize bestowed annually upon a full professor in mid-career who has demonstrated extraordinary accomplishment in undergraduate teaching, public service, and research or creative activity.
Gere received the Gold Shield prize for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his work with "Make Art/Stop AIDS," a project he created under the aegis of the Art | Global Health Center. "Make Art/Stop AIDS" got its roots in 2004, when Gere went to India on a Fulbright fellowship to identify artists working to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic. He quickly found himself in the role of liaison, bringing together artists from India and the United States.
Since then, "Make Art/Stop AIDS" has grown into a project of international stature, with a worldwide network of artists intervening in the AIDS epidemic. Projects of all kinds have spun off from "Make Art/Stop AIDS," including "Dress Up Against AIDS: Condom Couture by Adriana Bertini," a 2006-07 Fowler Museum exhibition featuring 14 garments made entirely of condoms.
"Douglas Crimp, an art historian and theorist, wrote a text in which he talked about how art shouldn't be made only to make money at a benefit so that we could give money to organizations to do research," Gere said. "Instead, we should make art that is capable of stopping the epidemic because its content is so strong, because its focus is so clear, because we believe in the efficacy and the transformative possibilities of the arts."
Professor Victoria Marks of World Arts and Cultures, who nominated Gere for the Gold Shield Faculty Prize, said of her colleague: "David is an extraordinary educator. He is inspired and inspiring. He is warm, generous and kind, but expects mountains to be moved. He is a force of nature, and when you meet him, you realize that he understands our vulnerability, our humanity, all at the same time."
Gere teaches courses on performance theory, AIDS and arts activism, but "Make Art/Stop AIDS" is his signature course. His book, "How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), received the award for outstanding book publication from the Congress on Research in Dance.
"Since meeting David my first year, he has provided me with mentorship and opportunities to learn both in and outside of the classroom," said Arianna Taboada, a 2010 WAC graduate who has worked closely with Gere on a photography project called "Through Positive Eyes," in which people living with HIV in Mexico, Brazil and South Africa document their own lives through photography. "I would say that is his teaching style — having students learn by doing. His research is also very action-oriented. He is deeply committed to moving from theory to practical application, and passes this approach on to his students."
Gere's Art | Global Health Center is hoping to expand "AMP It Up!," its teen AIDS awareness project, from its pilot program at King/Drew Magnet High School to eight high schools in South and East Los Angeles. Through the use of skits and role-playing, UCLA students teach high school students about HIV prevention. First-person stories from HIV-positive individuals let students know what it's like to live with the virus.
Gere attributed his love of the arts to his parents, Homer and Doris, who were choir singers in their youth and instilled a love of singing in all five of their children. "To this day, when we're together, we break into harmonies and sing with each other," said Gere, whose three sisters have pursued mostly non-arts careers but have continued their interests in singing and in the visual arts. (His older brother is actor Richard Gere.) "It's a very fun thing to be able to do with my family."
Gere and his partner, Peter Carley — a counselor at UCLA's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Campus Resource Center — live in Hedrick Summit as part of the Faculty-in-Residence program. Their children, Christopher, 11, and Isadora, 9, attend the UCLA Lab School.
Together with Bridget Le Loup, resident director in the Office of Residential Life, Gere has instituted several programs on the Hill, including "The Global Summit," in which students are encouraged to pursue the ideals of global citizenship through study and action.
Harkiran Gill, a 2010 graduate in anthropology and former resident assistant at Hedrick Summit, supported Gere's nomination for the Gold Shield Faculty Prize by describing one of the many pioneering student projects Gere inspired: Taking money earned from recycling and donating it to Kiva, a foundation that provides microfinancing to families around the world.
"This program really inspired my residents to recycle more, as their recyclables will be a significant help to families around the world," Gill said. "It has also taught residents that there are very tangible ways that we can all be better global citizens. Dr. Gere has shown residents of Hedrick Summit that our residential life program at UCLA inspires excellence and is a setting in which students can make a real difference, both locally and globally."
All of which brings Gere back to his small-town roots. He lives at Hedrick Summit, he said, because he appreciates the intimacy of small, educational environments.
"Sometimes it's hard to feel [that intimacy] amongst the 30,000 people who are here at the university, as amazing as this university is," he said. "So this was a way for me, at least, to recapture some of that feeling of intimacy and to enjoy it at the level of my own family being nurtured and being able to grow in that setting. It's the place where I feel like I have the most to contribute."