Meet the artists trying to save democracy — one billboard at a time

June 9, 2019
This article is featured in Summit Explorer, Summit's local newsletter.

Pioneering artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, founders of the artist-led political organization For Freedoms, are showcasing in Manhattan some of the work they helped organize for “The 50-State Initiative” — the largest creative collaboration in American history.

The initiative, which took place last autumn, included a national campaign to run 200 creative billboards, 120 town hall meetings featuring artists and civic leaders, and a re-envisioning of Norman Rockwell’s paintings depicting FDR’s iconic “Four Freedoms” to make them more inclusive. The name of the collaboration was a riff on the presidential 50 state strategy; the idea was that while many presidential candidates fail to deliver on their promise to engage citizens in every state, artists can actually get it done.

For Freedom recreates Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" to be diverse and inclusive

“We're really building a network of institutions and artists to mobilize into public discourse, and that network is sort of invisible and exists, but we were trying to activate it and connect all the dots across the country,” Eric tells us.

The aim is to have artists help people break from the stubborn partisanship that divides so much of the country and stifles conversation.

“We’re interested in raising the level of political discourse,” Hank explains. “It’s not a measurable kind of success, but it is a success we think can happen incrementally, over time.”

For Freedom's billboard in Pearl, Mississippi featuring Spider Martin's "Two Minute Warning" photograph

Hank and Eric have having been talking about the links between art and politics for nearly 20 years. In the spring of 2015, while they walked together through the streets of Florence, an idea for a big collaboration finally clicked. At that point Obama was still president and they didn’t know who the 2016 presidential candidates would be, but they knew they wanted to elevate the political conversation through art.

In the Trump era, their goal of bringing people together and trying to free people from boxes using provocative, nuanced art has taken on a special resonance. They say they believe that artists can be just as important as politicians in building a better society, and that ultimately they hope to “use creativity to rebrand patriotism.”

Visitors inside the For Freedoms exhibition at ICP Museum, NYC
Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman photographed by Hassan Hajjaj at Summit LA18
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