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From a Pop-Up Studio in Silver Lake, a Nonprofit Is Using Protest Art to Rescue Democracy

One of the driving forces behind a successful protest campaign is art, and a Seattle-based nonprofit called Amplifier has been leveraging it with one goal in mind: to help save democracy. Recognizing the Herculean nature of the task, the organization has temporarily staked out a pop-up studio in Silver Lake, with support from Shepard Fairey and the Annenberg Foundation. The space functions not only as a studio but also as an ad-hoc meetings venue and gallery showcasing the politically charged art posters that Amplifier has been commissioning in its recent history.

Amplifier's executive director is Aaron Huey, a documentary photographer for National Geographic and a colleague of Fairey's. A Stanford University fellow, Huey created his institution after receiving a media experiment grant with the idea that Amplifier would function as a vehicle for social change, cultivating collaborations with various artists and movements in order to "amplify" their messages.

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Originally from New Zealand, artist, curator and Amplifier's program director, Cleo Barnett, has a lot of experience working in art, politics and public space. With a master's degree in art and public policy from NYU, she found herself immersed in New Zealand's graffiti and street-art culture before curating an exhibition in Seattle, where Huey is based. It caught his attention, so he asked her to join the Amplifier team.

"We try to get as much artwork into the hands of people as possible, and give people tools to engage in their democracy," Barnett says.

But Amplifier's mission wasn't always what it is now. Last year, explore.org, a direct charitable giving activity of the Annenberg Foundation, awarded the group a $300,000 grant, which was literally deposited the day after Trump's election. The arts coalition had intended to use the money for a prison-reform campaign but quickly recognized the window of opportunity to lobby for a more imminent cause: "We the People" was an idea that kept coming up before the inauguration.

"If you look at the #wethepeople hashtag on Instagram, it's guns and girls and beer and flags," Barnett observes. "We wanted to take something that was actually really inclusive and actually is the foundation of our democracy."

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So Amplifier put the entire sum of the grant into its fledgling crusade, fully aware that it might spell the end of the organization. But the organizers were driven by a larger purpose and unified by an even bigger cause. "It was definitely a nonpartisan campaign," Barnett says. "It was about our American values and capturing the media attention away from the spectacle and pointing it toward the direction that we want to move to, as American people."

Amplifier launched a Kickstarter, hoping to raise enough money to recoup what was invested in the new campaign. Six days later, it was the most successful arts Kickstarter in history, raising more than $1 million from the public. "[The funders were] obviously very happy with the success, because we were supposed to do a whole year of programing with this money, and we spent it all in, like, two months — and it worked! It was a daredevil move that actually worked," Barnett says.

Amplifier held an open call for posters for the Women's March and received 5,000 submissions in eight days. Initially there were supposed to be just three designs, but it ultimately became four. Huey and Barnett also curated 150 artworks from the submissions they want to tour nationally, 45 of which are on display in Silver Lake, along with other campaigns for a number of various causes, from climate change and science to immigration, indigenous land rights and anti-Islamophobia. "They're just such beautiful artworks, and it was such a shame to only be able to showcase four," Barnett says. "They're all from female-identifying artists who are making artwork in response to the manifesto of the Women's March."

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In order to help spread the word about the brand-new "We the People" campaign, Amplifier took out ads in the Washington Post and hauled more than 50,000 pieces of art to Washington, D.C., dropping off the posters at different businesses that wanted to support the distribution. Because protest posters weren't allowed at the inauguration, the bulk of the artwork was distributed for the nationwide Women's March instead.

Meanwhile, after the successful Kickstarter campaign, Amplifier realized it needed to send out thousands of tubes of artwork to supporters. With Shepard Fairey's studio down the road and the Annenberg Foundation being based in L.A., Amplifier decided to do it all in Los Angeles. "This is our first time having a space and it's our first time supporting all of our campaigns on a deeper level, bringing people together to talk deeper about things we're working on, which is really exciting for me, as one of the curators and producers," Barnett explains.

"Our goal for 'We the People' was to capture the whole world's attention and point them toward a compass of our American values, and we did that. So that's very energizing. So our new goal is to save democracy, and we obviously don't think we're heroes and that we can do it alone. It's always with a community of people."

The Amplifier pop-up space is up through Aug. 4 at 3333 Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake.

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CORRECTION: This post has been updated to more accurately reflect Shepard Fairey's role in the project.


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