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Originally founded as an “arts-centric super PAC” in 2016, Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman’s For Freedoms organization has evolved in surprising ways over the years. Perhaps like anything created by artists, the nonprofit has transformed, pivoted and most importantly grown around its mission of using art to drive civic engagement, capturing the imagination of citizens and creative collaborators alike. And that says something at a time when political morale is at an all-time low.

In 2018, For Freedoms produced the 50 States Initiative, considered the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history. It partnered with over 200 institutions across the country to produce a series of town halls, exhibitions and, most notably, artist-created billboards designed to drive people to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections. Over 175 creators participated in the billboard project, including heavyweights like Theaster Gates, David Byrne, Dread Scott, Guerrilla Girls and Susan Meiselas.

Hank Willis Thomas, All Li es Matter, St. Louis, MO, In Collaboration with Projects+Gallery, 2018 (photo by Projects+Gallery)

Now, ahead of the 2020 election, the organization is launching its first ever For Freedoms Congress (FFCon), a series of discussions and community events bringing together activists, artists and everyday citizens to not only talk about the issues affecting them, but to actually strategize collective action.

“The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to effect change,” says co-founder Hank Willis Thomas. “Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide. With FFCon, we thought, what would happen if we brought them all together?”

In a call with L.A. Weekly, Thomas explained it’s best to think of FFCON as “a creative think tank.” From February 27 to March 1, FFCon events will be spread out at institutions across the city, including the Hammer Museum, MOCA, the Sundance Institute and the Japanese American National Museum, with support from L.A. County Department of Art and Culture, and organizations like Sankofa.org, among others.

Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Hank Willis Thomas at Creative Time Summit 2019, New York (photo by Creative Time)

There will be a series of public discussions and programs centered around each of the four freedoms originally espoused by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The kick-off event at MOCA on February 27 will explore the tenet of Freedom from Fear through an interactive performance about privilege and lack of basic access to housing or food, offered by Theatre of the Oppressed and co-presented by Brent Blair, Donna Hylton and Skipp Townsend.

“2020 is a time for critical action, so when Hank came to us with the idea of the Congress, there was no question that we would be involved and support the project wholeheartedly,” Amanda Hunt, Director of Education and senior curator of programs at MOCA tells L.A. Weekly. “The intersection of art and civic life and political action has a rich history that I wanted to see unfolding in real time here at MOCA.”

Tef Poe at For Freedoms Town Hall _ The 50 State Initiative, Town Hall, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, 2018. (photo by Virginia Harold)

Each day of FFCon will feature a headlining event based on its own freedom, concluding with Freedom of Speech, a panel discussion where speakers like Maggie Wheeler, Emile Hassan Dyer, Melina Abdullah and Edna Chavez will discuss how speech is being used (and abused) during the 2020 presidential election.

The real bulk of FFCon, however, is the in-depth planning sessions lead with free-reign by artists, art administrators and other creatives around the issues that are most central to their work. Patrisse Cullors, who co-founded Black Lives Matter, will be leading a Call & Response presentation with the Crenshaw Dairy Mart art collective and gallery on February 28 that will feature performances at MOCA about police brutality, racism and mass incarceration.

“These works are about a larger call to action against a jail system that is gobbling up our communities and torturing them while they are at it,” says Cullors. The performances at MOCA will make way to a BBQ at the Mart itself, where attendees can learn about the Yes On R initiative that aims to reform L.A.’s broken prison system.

“I believe that artists are the link to developing a future and vision for the country and world that challenges the old conservative and dangerous narratives that have caused so much harm for communities at the margin,” Cullors tells the Weekly. “The For Freedoms Congress is an opportunity to bring artists who are excited and ready to help make radical changes in their respective fields.”

On February 29, Glenn Kaino will lead an interactive drawing workshop called “With Drawn Arms,” based on his famed exhibition dedicated to athlete Tommie Smith’s human rights protest at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico. In his session, Kaino’s goal will be for participants to find symbols of power in this moment of facing down racial injustice in America. Kaino tells the Weekly, “I hope that the community is expanded and that every participant feels connected to each other and our collective fight for equality and justice — that we can share stories and help create a context for wide-scale collaboration.”

Given the success of the town hall events from the 50 State Initiative, something like FFCon was perhaps inevitable — a response to the growing For Freedoms community wanting to work together more deeply, and in turn, creating even more engagement.

Lawn Sign Activation at USF Contemporary Art Musuem, Tampa, FL 2018. (photo by USF Contemporary Art Museum)

“We really felt that the Congress was urgent and timely given this historic election year, and given how much energy was created through our last state campaign,” For Freedoms director Michelle Woo tells the Weekly. “When we followed up with our collaborators post-project, everyone expressed a need to come together and to do something larger.”

And “larger” is something that has redefined the organization each year since its inception. Every initiative of For Freedoms has brought in a bigger audience, more collaborators, more cultural institutions — more materials and mediums with which the artists can realize their creative vision for a civically engaged populace. One gets the sense this has already grown bigger than what Thomas or Gottesmen originally imagined, but such is the nature of dreams.

“I think what’s kept us going is our delirium,” admits Thomas. “We’re irrational people, too stupid to quit. The fact that other people are joining us is the greatest sign that we’re doing something right.”

For more information on For Freedoms and FFCon Los Angeles, visit: forfreedoms.org/ffcon.

Christine Sun Kim, Words Shape Reality, Jefferson City, MO, 2018. (photo by Notley Hawkins)