A Silver Lake billboard that recently hawked Avion tequila took on a very different tone last month. "SUPPORT PUBLIC EDUCATION OR FACE CATASTROPHE!" read the near-apocalyptic message in stark black type. On Santa Monica Boulevard, the wisdom of Robert Frost crept by in the same foot-tall, all-caps characters, wrapped around a Metro bus: "Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence."
This campaign, which launched in October and has quickly become both the best-looking and most ubiquitous advertising on L.A.'s streets, is produced by art organization ForYourArt to benefit the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education (or LA Fund for short), a nonprofit co-founded by LAUSD superintendent John Deasy last year. And the artist is none other than the legendary Barbara Kruger, whose signature black, white and red graphics -- like a public service announcement meets reassuring Mad Men-era advertising -- reads spectacularly well in L.A.'s urban environment.
The LA Fund is hoping to raise $1.5 million by the spring to fund a new initiative called Arts Matter and Kruger's work -- actually an original, site-specific piece named Untitled, (Human History) -- is meant to work on two levels, says LA Fund executive director Dan Chang. The campaign is meant to both communicate the critical importance of arts education funding to Angelenos and deliver that art to the city in a kind of mobile gallery. "It's about the awareness of getting public art into the streets of L.A. and making it accessible to people who wouldn't otherwise see it."
Over $4 million in ad space was donated by Clear Channel and CBS to support the campaign, making it pleasantly unavoidable.
Like Proposition 30, the Jerry Brown-supported education tax that passed on Election Day with a slim margin, the LA Fund hopes to provide relief for LAUSD's decimated budget. But Chang cautions that the LA Fund is not simply trying to fundraise for lost operating dollars. Instead, it's introducing its own ideas for fixing public education, he says. "We're getting support for innovative projects that need startup capital."
After successful programs including an anti-bullying campaign and a new way to provide breakfast to students, Arts Matter will address arts education by developing immersive programming with local art institutions like MOCA and the Music Center that brings art into the core curriculum. So fractions might be taught in a math class through the value of musical notes, for example. The key, says Chang, is a totally interdisciplinary approach that is more about learning the creative process. "You have to have arts innovation in there, teaching kids to be creative."
Kruger is the first of four L.A.-based contemporary artists who are creating original works for the campaign -- the other three are still under wraps, but Chang hints the next one is male and will debut in January. "She was perfect because her art is so clever," Chang says of Kruger. "She tells you something profound and witty and it makes you think." Kruger declined to comment; through the campaign's spokesperson she preferred to "let her art do the talking." In fact, the art does that quite well -- Kruger's ad-inspired work couldn't have found a better home on buses and billboards; her dramatic graphics read both urgent and elegant in her signature Futura Bold. It's impossible to look away.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the campaign is its overwhelmingly positive response on social media. Those who know what the campaign is all about are enjoying the game of spotting them around town -- even a jaded art writer is not immune. I found myself pointing and screaming "Art bus! Art bus!" while I was eating breakfast on Sunset Boulevard, and I think I jumped up and down when a Krugered 4 bus arrived at my stop (and promptly Tweeted, Facebooked and Instagrammed it).
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But even people who have no idea what the bus or billboards are supporting are posting photos on Instagram or Twitter because they're drawn in by the message and execution. It's a far more effective strategy compared to something like the proposition advertising that blanketed the city, for example. Instead of a simplified message, like "SUPPORT THE LA FUND" or "SUPPORT ARTS EDUCATION" the campaign provides content that enhances the public realm, and asks the general public to actually think about the message -- what a concept! Then, going deeper, the contribution of Kruger and the three other mystery artists provide an art world pedigree that resonates with well-to-do donors. It's win-win.
The campaign has already raised over $460,000, almost a third of the way to its goal. And at least for this phase of the campaign, the timing was impeccable for another victory: One might wonder if the LA Fund's campaign helped bring education funding to the forefront of voters' minds over the past month in a fresh way. It may have helped Prop 30 pass.