It’s something that’s been drilled into us for decades through celebrity-laced PSAs, artful print ads and surreal commercials, but voter turnout among progressives and millennials has been consistently abysmal. Unfortunately, even with all the money and creativity invested in these messages over the years, the most successful get-out-the-vote campaign might prove to be the outcome of the 2016 election.
For Freedoms isn’t taking any chances, though.
With the consequences of the last election being beaten into us every moment by an endless barrage of news alerts and outraged social media posts, the organization is launching a new program to remind people they can make a difference on Nov. 6. The new 50 States initiative is a nationwide public art and political engagement campaign that will pair more than 200 cultural institutions with 175 artists across the country to create things like billboards, town hall meetings and special exhibits, all to inspire voting in November’s midterm elections.
Between Trump’s claims of Democrats committing voter fraud, evidence of Russia interfering in the election, and accusations of the FBI trying to swing votes in favor of either Trump or Clinton (depending on whatever the current narrative is), the majority of Americans think their vote didn’t (and won’t) count. In order to change this perspective, we need the big guns.
For Freedoms’ 50 States is the largest public art campaign ever conceived, engaging heavy-hitter cultural institutions and organizations in every state in the union. Big players in California include UCLA, Stanford University, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Undefeated, Summit LA18 and CultureStrike, to name a few.
The billboards and free public programming will start rolling out in September, and the massive endeavor is being paid for almost entirely via crowdfunding. Last month, For Freedoms partnered with Kickstarter to set up 52 fundraisers (for all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico), with each campaign setting a modest goal of $3,000. California is already funded, but the rest of the states are still in need of help.
Political billboards have gotten a reputation lately of being disturbingly partisan, but the efforts of For Freedoms focus simply on Americans as citizens who have a responsibility to talk with one another and participate in our democracy. A smaller version of the 50 States initiative launched in 2016, placing billboards in cities including Denver, Miami, Flint, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio. “Us Is Them,” read one of the organization’s 2016 billboards in New Orleans. “Mass Action,” urged another billboard in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I don’t think we are as polarized as it appears we are,” Eric Gottesman, co-founder of the organization, tells L.A. Weekly. “At this moment in our history, media and the dizzying new technologies we use to communicate create the illusion that we are extreme versions of ourselves. We want to repurpose those channels of communication to increase their capacity for humanity and for complexity. And what is the artist’s job but to insert humanity into the ways in which we communicate?”
Sol Guy, a For Freedoms collaborator, doesn’t have quite as optimistic a view of our nation’s unity right now, but he still recognizes the role art can play in changing that. “We are living through the most divisive moment in our recent history,” he says. “In these times we believe that the artist’s voice must be the loudest in the room, as art has the ability to cross cultural and political lines and an artist’s creative expression can spark productive dialogue and ask questions, creating space for people and communities to find the answers.”
For Freedoms was established in 2016 by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Gottesman as a super PAC, based on the values espoused in President Roosevelt’s legendary “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941.
“We created it as a super PAC because super PACs are really problematic,” Thomas told Kickstarter in an interview. “They’re basically political advertising agencies. They came about as part of the notion of money as a form of political speech: If I give money, that’s my speech, and I as an organization can speak with my money.”
In an era where the executive branch wants to aggressively cut public funding for the arts (damn, it's hard not to be partisan these days), such a massive undertaking to crowd-fund the work of artists is a bit of a statement in its own right. Still, Thomas says, “The election has caused us to double down and dared us to test our principles of not being partisan and not being interested in the binaries of left and right politics.”
“Artists receive no public funding in the United States,” Cassils, one of the artists participating in this year’s campaign, tells L.A. Weekly. “It is though sheer will that ephemeral body-based performance artists such as myself manage to survive in the market-based economy of the United States art world. Though artists may be fiscally poor, we have cultural currency. Here artists inject, through a Trojan horse–like method, our art into the U.S. political system.”
“For Freedoms is making it relevant and important to discuss our liberties and encourages us all to exercise our voices in a time where political lethargy is at an all-time high,” says Summit’s Alex Zhang, a For Freedoms partner.
You can expect the For Freedoms billboards to start popping up in every major U.S. city starting in September — right alongside the ads for specific candidates paid for by their super PACs. Around that same time, the cultural partners will start announcing their free public programming, including town halls, panel discussions, mixers and other events — the perfect opportunity to start conversing with like-minded (and otherwise) citizens about politics. And that’s exactly what democracy is supposed to be about.