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US artists and museums join forces to fire up voters

Artists and activists gather in Los Angeles later this month for the first For Freedoms Congress, a three-day event to spur voter engagement

Sign of the times: a university campus event organised by the For Freedoms group to engage young voters Photo: USF Contemporary Art Musuem, Courtesy of For Freedoms Congress

Artists and activists will gather in Los Angeles later this month for the first For Freedoms Congress, a three-day event featuring discussions, performances and workshops to spur voter engagement. “The aim is for us to recognise that if we want to address entrenched problems, we have to have creative solutions,” says the artist and organiser Hank Willis Thomas.

To this end, For Freedoms has partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), the Japanese American National Museum and the Hammer Museum, and enlisted artists including Glenn Kaino, Rafa Esparza and Cassils, among others, to lead events.

“Hank is ambitious,” says Amanda Hunt, MoCA’s director of education and senior curator of programmes. “We’re getting ready for an epic battle—the stakes are really high. It’s about power in numbers, and bringing together all kinds of thinkers across disciplines.”

For Freedoms was founded in 2016 by Thomas and fellow artist Eric Gottesman as a civic platform that combines “art, politics, commerce and education”. It takes its name from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms address—in which the US president spoke of the universal rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear—which were famously illustrated in a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell in 1943. The group’s 50 State Initiative, launched in 2018 and described as the largest public art project in the US, has resulted in 52 artist-designed billboards installed across the country.

With the For Freedoms Congress, Gottesman notes that they are tapping into a larger movement of artists engaging with contemporary issues, including the Black Artists Retreat, started by Theaster Gates and Eliza Myrie in Chicago and coming to New York for the first time this October, and Vision & Justice, a two-day conference in April conceived by the Harvard art historian Sarah Lewis. “We’re building on that legacy in which artists have come together to shape the future,” Gottesman says.

There is a lot of anxiety and fear being peddled as the election approaches Eric Gottesman, artist and activist

One participating artist whose practice integrates art and activism is Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. She will be leading an event at MoCA Geffen Contemporary related to a forthcoming ballot measure that pushes for greater accountability for law enforcement, and advocates for alternatives to incarceration for those with mental illness. For Cullors, the issue is personal as well as political. “My brother has a developmental disorder and has been criminalised for it his entire life,” she says.

She will also be holding a barbecue at the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, a new art space in the city’s Inglewood district that Cullors founded with Noé Olivas and other classmates from her recent University of Southern California (USC) MFA programme.

For her contribution, the artist and technologist Amelia Winger-Bearskin will lead a workshop on writing “songs of protest, that create the identity of the country and state that we want to live in,” she says. “I’m Native American and we have lots of songs we sing as part of governance and the decision-making process. Lifting our voice in public space is practice for lifting our voice in government.”

Winger-Bearskin will also be creating a low-sensory environment, like a chill-out room, with a playlist offering a “guided space to think about the congress,” she says. “It’s introspective, but also a funny, satirical approach to mindfulness.”

Rick Noguchi, the chief operating officer of the Japanese American National Museum, says the museum’s location itself has an important political legacy. “The plaza is a site of conscience,” he says. “The building was built in 1924 as one of the first Buddhist temples on the West Coast.” When Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during the Second World War, many left their belongings at the temple, and it became a meeting place for the community during a dark and trying time.

A keystone of the congress will be four town hall meetings organised by the social justice group Sankofa, led by artists and leaders including the USC theatre professor Brent Blair, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network founder Pete White. “Part of the goal is to have the public engage with artists intentionally, but also for the public to have a deeper understanding of how art can be used as a tool to educate, motivate, and activate the community to action,” says Gina Belafonte, Sankofa’s executive director.

“There is a lot of anxiety and fear being peddled as the election approaches,” says Gottesman, who notes that the Congress will takes place just before Super Tuesday, when many states hold their primary elections for the presidential candidates. “This is a moment for creative and empathetic people to get together and think about alternatives for what this year might look like.”