Why Support for Artists Is Key to a Just Society
Artists have always been on the front lines of protest and social shift, taking the pulse of culture and society.
Support for artists is key if we want to create a just society that is sustainable. Artists have always been on the front lines of protest and social shift, taking the pulse of culture and society. In its current state, our society is set up to devalue art and culture financially and culturally. Schools and organizations have been cutting funding for the arts in favor of science and math programs, and the stereotype of the “starving artist” is embedded well into our culture. And, the few artists who tend to garner widespread recognition and financial success are most often white artists from privileged backgrounds. This setup fails to comprehend the reality that artists—people who think the most creatively and freely—are not just key to cultural coherence, but also crucial to the innovative social changes necessary for our future survival in the face of extraordinary crises (like climate change and economic frailty).
Getting Money Into the Hands of Diverse Artists Supports Society as a Whole
Often, people living on the edges of society—BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), those within the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers and single moms—are also artists. Rather than government agencies or large organizations, these often underfunded and underrecognized artists are responsible for the most creative solutions to the world’s problems. They are the activists on the front lines of political resistance. They are helping relocalize food supply chains, strengthening mutual aid efforts, creating community-led and owned housing and building what is often called the solidarity economy.
This is detailed in the 2021 Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) report, “Solidarity Not Charity: Arts and Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy,” which explores how the grantmaking community can support culture-workers and artists to create a more just economy.
Economic Realities for Artists
A short film featured on the report website, which has graphics by animator Sean Dong, details the economic realities that culture-workers face today and lays out the premise for expanding a solidarity economy. Among many striking statistics, at one point the video states that “An artist living in a community land trust living in New York City will have 27 hours a week to make art compared to an artist in market-priced housing who will have four hours a week for art-making.”
Woolard said she crunched those numbers with artist Amy Whitaker based on the median income of an artist and the cost of housing in NYC in a land trust versus market-rate housing in the same area.
“As you see in the report, we write that ‘a typical dancer/choreographer, who makes $31,200, the annual average earnings for their field before COVID-19 hit, will only have to spend 6 hours a week to cover their housing costs in a community land trust, compared to the 28 hours a week it would take to cover a market-rate rental in the same area’,” Woolard told IMI, noting their findings that artists living in community land trust have 27 hours a week for art versus artists in market-priced housing who have just four.
The authors said that if someone were to walk away from the report with just one key understanding, they would want people to see that all of the various initiatives covered – mutual aid networks, housing and worker co-ops, participatory budgeting processes, public banks and time banks – support one another to form a base of political power. This is because they have “community ownership and democratic governance for political, cultural, and economic power” in common. According to the authors, while most people are aware of the “discrete practices and models that comprise the solidarity economy,” many people, however, do not realize what the relevant term is that holds these concepts together, or that these practices are supported holistically in other countries around the world. They recommend looking at Nwamaka Agbo’s Restorative Economics Theory of Liberation, which is used (with permission) in their report.
The report states that “The economic system culture-bearers and artists want is not only possible – it already exists,” and it provides a plethora of on-the-ground examples of this happening. Linares said some of the most striking examples of this happening come in places that “balance the resistance work with the building work.” She provided examples of artist-led resistance organizing efforts happening right now, which readers can lend their support to, including the following:
- The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers struggle against Spotify
- MoMa Divest
- The People’s Forum in NYC
- The Music Workers Alliance, formed to provide resources for out-of-work contractors within all facets of the industry
- The UK’s #BrokenRecord campaign, which is lobbying Parliament to legislatively restructure the industry
- The National Independent Venue Association, organized by performance hall owners across the US to demand a share of the government’s stimulus (which they secured)
- Catalytic Sound, a small streaming service run by a cooperative of 30 avant-garde musicians with the goal of paying its artists fairly
- The Pact, a group of hit songwriters who’ve publicly declared they will not grant songwriting credit to performers, or anyone else, who did not actually have a substantial writing role in a song’s conception
Linares also pointed out how readers can support artist-led “building” efforts and platforms like:
- Resonate co-op
- Guilded (USFWC’s freelancer cooperative)
- Happy Family Night Market
- Sol Collective
- Check the directory under “Examples” at art.coop/report
She also recommended that readers of the report locate their local grassroots organizing and solidarity economy-cooperative groups and get involved.
“We wanted to highlight the connections between mutual aid networks, open source software, and cooperatives that creative people are organizing now. In short, to show grantmakers the role culture plays in initiatives that build ‘community ownership and democratic governance for political, cultural, and economic power,’ as [CEO of the Kataly Foundation] Nwamaka Agbo articulates so well,” says Caroline Woolard, a co-author of the report.
While culture-bearers are the force shifting society away from outdated systems and offering local solutions to the global-scale problems that many people face today, very often, their efforts are underfunded as Heather Bhandari, co-author of the book Art/Work, explains. Bhandari, an independent curator and adjunct lecturer at Brown University, co-founded Art World Learning (AWL), a subscription-based online learning platform designed to teach artists and “cultural producers” about finances and business. She says the idea behind AWL was to address the monetary inequities so many artists face and help make the business end of the art world more accessible for those in the creative sector.
Bhandari, an artist who received her Master of Fine Arts in painting and then worked in galleries and nonprofits in New York, says she realized quickly that many of the existing systems that needed to be navigated in order to survive in the capitalist realities of society were “opaque.”
“I gave myself a directive to make things more transparent,” she says. She teamed up with Dexter Wimberly, senior critic at New York Academy of Art, during an event called the Art World Conference, which took place in New York in 2019. They both finally founded AWL together.
“The conference brought together arts professionals to demystify the business end of things, and shed light on business and financial health practices required for a long-term, sustainable career in the arts,” she says. “Because, strangely, artists are not valued in the way that we think they should be. Part of that is coming from the outside world, and part of that is internal. There is an internalization of starving artist stereotypes, and also some toxic education that tells artists that working in the arts is all about being a solo practitioner, and that you do everything for exposure. That doesn’t really work long term for anybody. The conference brought people together to talk about these topics and to try to make money in the arts less of a taboo and to hopefully eliminate some shame around the topic.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, AWL’s focus shifted away from in-person events toward to an online learning model. Bhandari and Wimberly have concentrated on getting the AWL program into higher education institutions, such as colleges and universities, which can provide this information for free to their students, says Bhandari.
“We’re trying to facilitate a deeper discussion earlier on,” she says. “I never see our job [in AWL] as solving people’s problems or giving them everything they need. What I see as our job is to lay a foundation that people can build on—sort of a layout of the capitalist realities of the world we live in—and then, hopefully over time, lay out alternatives to that and acknowledge the people and institutions and systems that are working in a much healthier way for the creative community.”
Bhandari says that when she is thinking about artists and compensation, she often thinks about the writing of Caroline Woolard (who co-authored the Solidarity, Not Charity report /Art.Coop), Amy Whitaker and others who focus on solidarity economy and equity for artists.
“I often think about labor, and how artistic labor is often uncompensated because we live in a society—and even art school, a lot of times—that privileges objects and the selling of objects,” she says. “What I’ve noticed over the 20-plus years that I’ve been in the art world is that there are more and more artists who are less interested in objects, and more interested in social practices and interconnectedness, and doing systems change work. You can’t put a price tag on that necessarily, but they have bodies that need to be healthy, fed and sleep in beds in houses.”
Bhandari says she often comes across a tension among artists, and throughout society, between enjoying one’s work and being paid for it.
“There’s shame around not having money, there’s shame around having money. Money is so complicated for people psychologically,” she says. “I had a class where some of the students were saying, ‘I don’t want to corrupt my practice with money.’ … And while I know there are people who figure out systems where they don’t have to interact with money very often, that’s not common. … The whole philosophy that says you shouldn’t sully your artwork by thinking about being paid for your labor… definitely privileges those with a financial safety net. I think that is why we see a very white privileged art world—or the art that’s often most visible is a very white privileged art world.”
She says one of the reasons she co-founded AWL was to make sustainable paths more visible for artists via “simple financial health education that some people just never got at home when they were younger.”
After about a year of operation, 28 schools have enrolled in the AWL program, and counting. Bhandari estimates that at any point in time, there are about 1,000 people using the platform. The program is small, consisting of Bhandari, Wimberly and Julia Clark.
“We thought if [the business side of art] was made more obvious or more accessible that maybe a larger, more diverse group of people would make up a more inclusive art world in the future,” she says. “One of our goals for the work that we do is to offer tools so that a more diverse group of people feel feels like they can sustain themselves through art,” she says.
Bhandari says she thinks the Solidarity Not Charity report and the work being done by Art.Coop is “exciting” because of its implications for philanthropy across fields.
“These ideas are coming from the arts, but are actually applicable to all different other fields… the work Caroline Woolard does through Art.Coop and Open Collective and the other institutions she works with is amazing at identifying the networks of people that are supporting one another outside what’s expected in high-yield capitalist systems… that work is identifying impulses and [alternate] systems that do exist in the arts.”
She says the identification of these networks and connection points is important because it helps break with the prevalent stereotype that artists need to be individualistic and create their work in a vacuum.
“Those toxic stereotypes… have left artists in this position where they think they’re alone, even if they are part of a group of artists,” Bhandari says. “Caroline [Woolard] is making those connections between what artists do instinctively to survive and to create, and what is actually happening in the cooperative world.
AWL’s videos include lectures by accountants, lawyers, tech professionals and others who are able to speak to finances and business—but they are also artists, in most cases, Bhandari says. Most come from the New York area largely because filming the classes took place during the pandemic, when travel was limited. She says eventually she would like to work with people like Woolard and others like her and create a section dedicated to solidarity economy.
“We know that the vocabulary needs to be very specific for artists to listen,” she says. “These are people [in the AWL videos] who all know that vocabulary, and also know the particularities of freelancer artists’ lifestyles… it’s not the point A to point B path, it’s a big roller coaster for most people, financially. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Actually, you can figure out how to work with that.”
Ultimately, Bhandari says, she just wants to see more artists in the world, because, she says, artists can inspire empathy, a culture of peace and cooperation more easily than just about any other profession.
She says she remembers watching a performance by artist Vanessa German in which she was “singing” about what would happen if the national defense budget was spent on arts, and how it would inspire a culture of peace and empathy, and could “change the whole world.”
“I was like, ‘What would happen?’” Bhandari says. “Because it’s true that the ability to convey empathy and to inspire other people, or even just to convey an understanding or a cultural exchange is just so much easier when you’re doing it through the arts rather than through diplomatic relations and talking, or even through economics. Ultimately, I think that is why we’re doing what we’re doing, if you scratch the surface. We want to help people sustain their financial lives, but it’s because we want to make the world a better place.”
Artists Spark a Challenge to Gentrification in Oakland
“Love, arts, music.” These three words are painted in capital letters across the top of the “Universal Language” mural in downtown Oakland, California. The people and scenes that make Oakland an iconic hub of diversity and culture appear below these words. A monarch butterfly sits on the shoulder of a Native American drummer; African dancers beam, mid-sway; martial artists hold positions; heroes of Chinese-American immigration history peer out from black-and-white photographs; change-makers hold picket signs, fists raised. The activists and artists who have shaped the city smile across the building’s walls. But no one can see any of them anymore, after developers built a luxury condominium blocking the mural from view in 2019.
The painting of the mural began in 2013, and it was originally located on the walls surrounding a parking lot at the intersection of Alice Street and 14th Street—a site where longstanding communities of color continue to face displacement and gentrification. The mural depicts the diverse stories of culture, diaspora and perseverance. When it was completed in 2016, the mural was celebrated by the communities it represents, for uniquely capturing the cultural stories of Oakland. After it was covered up, the mural became a symbol of the impacts of gentrification—and it catalyzed an anti-gentrification community coalition into action.
The documentary film, “Alice Street,” directed by longtime Oaklander Spencer Wilkinson, tells the story of the mural, the people it represents, and the community efforts borne of its removal from public view. The 70-minute film was recently admitted into the Newport Beach Film Festival, where it is set to premiere in the second week of August (the festival was rescheduled from April to August due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Wilkinson previously directed the documentary “One Voice,” which tells the story of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. He began filming the mural artists at the project’s inception, while living on Alice Street. Wilkinson says over the five years of filming the mural project, the story grew unexpectedly. What was once meant to be a feel-good story about a unique piece of public art came to speak to the power of art amidst cultural adversity. He says the way the mural was removed from public view felt like a metaphor for the larger issues of gentrification and community displacement.
“The backdrop of the reality of living here is the gentrification that Oakland is experiencing,” Wilkinson says. He explains that the costs of renting or owning a home in Oakland have skyrocketed, especially in the last 15 years, “resulting in massive shifts in the demographics of Oakland, particularly impacting low-income people of color. … Here we are in 2020. And it’s like … you can’t even recognize downtown from what it was.”
Oakland has been at the epicenter of the nation’s gentrification crisis. Oakland was named the most diverse city in America in 2014, and in 2020 it was ranked second by U.S. News and eighth according to WalletHub.
“Alice Street” opens with a poem recitation by Destiny Muhammad, a recording/performing artist, as she stands on the downtown Oakland intersection where the mural was painted. Following a credit sequence that shows new building projects in the works, along with overlaid graphics that spell out the rising rent and property costs throughout the city, viewers meet the two muralists responsible for “Universal Language”: Chicago-born aerosol artist Desi Mundo and Chilean studio painter Pancho Pescador.
Several scenes in the “Alice Street” documentary show how, rather than just drawing from a personal vision or images they imagined the mural’s neighbors might enjoy, Mundo and Pescador visited the people they wanted to paint. In particular, as the film shows, they held meetings with the residents of Hotel Oakland Village (a nearby senior living community, housing primarily Chinese immigrants) and asked people living there how they wanted their cultures and histories depicted. They also spoke in detail with members of the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company and other groups who rehearsed and gathered at the historic Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, which sits right across the street from the mural’s location.
As shown in the film, the Malonga center’s existence was threatened with displacement in 2003 by then-governor Jerry Brown (at the time it was named the Alice Arts Center) and has more recently received noise complaints from new downtown neighbors.
Mundo says the “Universal Language” project and its aftermath had a significant personal impact on him as an artist.
“This piece is so meaningful to me in terms of how it was created and how we engaged the community, and the response that we got from it,” he says. “This type of work of deeper engagement is something that I want to carry on. I want to continue to create these very in-depth pieces for the community for as long as I can.”
Mundo founded the Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP), which is a public art and an artist advocacy nonprofit that refers to its work as a “pavement to policy” organization and supports the creation of public art by and for the local multicultural community members. CRP works for equitable development, or the mitigation of the negative impacts of development, by bringing all relevant stakeholders—including the businesses and residents most often disenfranchised by development—to the table for development policy conversations.
CRP is also a member of several artist advocacy groups in Oakland, and works to amplify art and artists operating outside of “gentrification narratives” and other “longstanding practices of inequity,” as written on its website. “CRP is in favor of multicultural solidarity, ensuring that community stakeholders have a seat at the table, and working with both private developers and city officials and staff to ensure long-term outcomes which increase baseline equity and community participation in decision-making processes,” the website continues.
Mundo says the CRP began with the simple idea of going into communities and painting in a way that allowed artists to express themselves while benefiting the community. Over time, the project grew increasingly focused on policy and community advocacy.
“We were thinking about things like, how do artists maintain their political power? Because we are change-makers, we are culture-keepers, and when we speak up on things, people listen,” Mundo says. “We can create movements around that, and we have to find ways for the artists to stay in control of their creative destiny, so to speak.”
Mundo notes that the arts can be public tools of gentrification—for example, the corporate-backed murals painted on an upscale development called Wynwood in Miami, as detailed in an In These Times article in 2019. Or, they can be tools to combat it.
“You see this mural in Oakland and a lot of the murals in Philadelphia and elsewhere as tools of acknowledging and preserving and enriching the existing communities,” Mundo says. “Public art can be used for both ends. So, having the conversations with communities within the art community about: what are you doing here, what’s your goal, how are you representing folks, how are you making things that tell stories about the places you’re at, and is it recognizable? How we are speaking to each other about this is really important.”
He says the CRP, while working in tandem with Wilkinson, wants to use the “Alice Street” film to facilitate that dialogue and create proactive steps to combat gentrification. They’re working to develop a curriculum around the “Alice Street” film that could be used in schools and other venues.
“A lot of the gentrification conversations you have in communities are these kind of sad, reminiscent conversations like, ‘It was so cool, and then they built this coffee shop and all these people moved in, and now we had to move our scene away,’ or whatever. And there’s no conversation about the actual things that we can do.”
Wilkinson says one of the reasons he chose to make the “Alice Street” film was the powerful community-galvanizing impact of public art.
“The rallying force that it played in bringing people together to demonstrate and to fight against this market-rate condominium and [the] impacts it would have on the neighborhood showed the power of the art to kind of catalyze people and become something that people can rally around,” he says.
Part of the film’s story follows various movements built by artists to fight against gentrification. The film shows how a coalition of artist-led efforts and organizations joined forces to fight against gentrification. The film follows the coalition of organizations in their effort to shift citywide policy to include the voices of artists and community organizations in city conversations about development and the future of Oakland.
Wilkinson says one scene in the film that stands out to him in particular is the scene that tells the history of the Malonga Center.
“It’s a scene that’s told through archival material and the artists painting the building, telling the story of how they joined together to fight being displaced,” Wilkinson says. The scene shows how the very same artists are the ones forced again to take to the streets in the most recent fight to be part of the conversation shaping Oakland’s future.
“One of the characters in the film, Carla Service, says, ‘We didn’t march to City Hall, we danced.’ It just kind of shows the power of using cultural arts, dance, drumming, to make an impact. And ultimately they fought and won, to stay in the building. And again, using those same tools, the artists were able to fight for community benefits and, and won significant benefits.”
The film takes viewers into meetings between members of the coalition, city officials and developers. CRP member Eric Arnold explains in the film how the activists were successful in their strategy to hold developers accountable for millions of dollars in concessions for lower-income community members, including 90 affordable homes. Using a similar strategy, the same coalition members secured funds for local arts groups in 2019, through the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center redevelopment project.
The coalition’s negotiations with developers and the city secured funds for both the Malonga Center and a new mural to replace the “Universal Language” mural, which is set to go up on a wall of the Greenlining Institute, located in downtown Oakland, close to the original mural site. Mundo said he spent the early weeks of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic outlining ideas and sketches for the new replacement mural.
Wilkinson says if the “Alice Street” film could leave audiences with one takeaway, it would be the power of culture.
“In this case, it would be the way in which two diverse communities came together,” he says. “Right now I think we need stories of unification and people crossing boundaries to find common struggles. If anything, I hope that the story can help to inspire people to do that, too. To unify with people who live across the street, to find those common struggles and use the culture and the arts as tools to decipher what you need in your community.”
How Black Artists in Oakland Reshaped the City’s Economy through the Pandemic
The impacts of gentrification have displaced many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities in cities across the United States. Oakland, California, had the highest rate of gentrification in the country according to a national study, detailed in the 2020 San Jose Mercury article, “Oakland, S.F. neighborhoods fastest gentrifying in U.S.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Oakland’s Black and other POC communities experienced the impacts of both gentrification and the urban exodus in response to the pandemic (explored in the 2021 Los Angeles Times article, “Wealth, class and remote work reshape California’s new boomtowns as people flee big cities”), as explained Zakiya Harris in 2021. Harris is a cultural architect who grew up in East Oakland and worked for more than two decades on projects that explore the intersections of art, activism and entrepreneurship. She lead the Alameda County-wide business navigation strategy of the artist network and hub Arts Web, and had been looking into ways to shift Oakland’s economy to better value the Black communities who have lived in the city since its early days, shaping Oakland’s cultural roots.
In response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the coinciding global uprising following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Harris was in the process of co-founding BlacSpace Cooperative, to create a full-service business development and economic ecosystem that uplifts Black arts, business, ownership, and culture in Oakland from within the Black community. Still in its early stages, in 2021 the co-op consisted of several Black-led cultural organizations located across the city of Oakland, all run by Black women.
“We, as a collective community, recognized that we were at a critical moment, and we could leverage the opportunity of the pandemic and the uprising toward a cultural reset,” she said.
The cooperative formed as a seed group in 2020, with four Oakland organizations that Harris said were “cultural anchors” in the city, as its members: the Black Cultural Zone, the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation of Oakland (BAMBD CDC), the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), and the Betti Ono Foundation. The project emerged out of a previous project that was focused on reimagining business models in the arts. It was inspired by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, with the intention to work toward more permanent strategies to support Black artist communities in Oakland so they could thrive.
Harris said she allotted funds from work with Alameda County’s Arts Web (which Community Vision, SVCreates and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation joined forces to develop) into founding the cooperative. BlacSpace has also received funding through the Center for Cultural Innovation and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)/Culture Bank. In the fall of 2021, the project transitioned into fiscal sponsorship with L.C. and Lillie Cox Haven of Hope, a Black-led fiscal organization led by Darcelle Lahr.
“Right now we’re scraping together money just to kick this pilot off, and we need additional funding in order to really have the pilot fully funded,” she says. “We’re going to be doing a major round of fundraising to initiate and implement phase two, which is going to happen in 2022.”
There is a growing conversation nationally around the importance of reallocating funding to the artists and culture-bearers who are oftentimes overlooked, but who are at the cutting edge of cultural and economic innovation—these include groups like BIPOC, trans people, queer people, strippers and single moms. As detailed in the 2021 report, Solidarity Not Charity: Arts and Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy, artists are very often the source of local solutions to the large-scale problems that many people face today—and that many more will face in the future.
BlacSpace Cooperative’s long-term vision is to provide city-wide programming and shared back-end business capacity support toward building cooperative business models and shared space acquisitions. The model is based on cooperative and democratic business structures to sustain a network of cultural spaces throughout Oakland—and ideally inspire other cities to create similar support systems for BIPOC artists.
Harris spoke with April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute for an interview in 2022 about BlacSpace Cooperative, its roots in the Black Arts Movement, and the potential to create a society at large that allows all people to thrive, by placing worth and value on the artists and culture-bearers at the center.
How Activists Around the U.S. Used Street Art to Protest Trump
“Defund the wall—fund our future.” This was the message painted in giant yellow letters as a street mural that filled the entire block’s worth of asphalt in front of the federal courthouse in Laredo, Texas. As of 2021, Laredo was a city of about 260,000 residents that sits along the north bank of the Rio Grande. The river marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and early efforts to move forward on the Trump administration’s proposed border wall project were negatively impacting life for residents of the city, many of whom had relatives and friends who live just across the border in Mexico.
Laredo residents led several protests in front of the federal courthouse where the street mural was painted.
Melissa Cigarroa, who had lived in Laredo since 1993 and was board president of the Rio Grande International Study Center, said in 2020 that she was concerned about the prevalence of misinformation on the border wall situation (much of which came from President Trump).
On July 14, 2020 the U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report detailing the shortcomings of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in its analysis and acquisition process of the southern border for the “Wall Acquisition Program.”
City residents organized by a coalition of anti-border wall groups, including LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), painted the enormous street mural across Victoria Street on August 15. A newly formed group that is part of the coalition, Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall, did maintenance on the mural on September 12, derailing a “Trump Train” car rally (which Cigarroa says was made up mostly of out-of-towners who came to Laredo to drive over the mural). Residents of the city have been organizing against the border wall for months. The street mural was a way for residents, many of whom have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to collaborate while remaining socially distanced.
The Outpouring of Anti-Trump Artwork
The street mural in Laredo is far from alone when it comes to public art that took a stand against Trump and his administration’s many degrading actions. Art has always been a tool of political activists, and the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic inspired some particularly memorable works of public art.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a mural on the side of a restaurant in Lithuania showing Trump kissing Russian President Vladimir Putin went viral. Around the same time, a mural painted on the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting Trump with a ball-gag wedged in his mouth and the words “!RAPE TRUMP!” became a tourist attraction. Who could forget the day in 2016 when numerous naked Trump statues, sculpted by the horror artist Ginger, appeared overnight in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle for the project known as “The Emperor Has No Balls.”
Both the Tijuana mural and the naked Trump sculptures were executed by the anonymous political activism artist collective Indecline. The group is also responsible for transforming a Trump Tower luxury hotel suite into a prison cell for the president, complete with live rats, in 2018, as the Russia investigation—which the U.S. Justice Department never fully examined—was ongoing.
Indecline, which began as a group of “punk kids” in Southern California looking for an outlet during the Bush administration years, has grown into a national collective of artists whose work makes headlines around the world regularly—especially since the Trump statues project.
“The best thing to do, for us, has always been to find a way to therapeutically make the best of these situations through activist art,” said a founder of Indecline who spoke anonymously with the Independent Media Institute.
The idea behind Indecline, he says, is to use art to shock people into paying attention to the things they care about, but often feel too depressing to look at.
“This has been around forever… Since the first time some asshole came in and pulled some oppressive move on a community, resistance art has been there,” he says. “Activist art or street art has ways of reaching people at an emotional level that more traditional forms of protest can’t.”
Indecline’s mission, per se, is to get people into a dialogue around the hard things to look at and invite them to look from new angles.
“We break so many laws in the quest to create our art, and that in and of itself has always been a touchpoint for us with the general public,” he says. “[We’re asking people to think about] why they care more about the billboard that we put a sticker on to address school shootings, rather than the school shootings themselves… When people are choosing property over people, for us that [indicates] a clear need to readjust, recalibrate your moral compass.”
The need to break laws in the name of civil disobedience and public awareness is a running theme throughout Indecline’s 40-minute documentary “The Art of Protest,” which was distributed by Zero Cool films and premiered on the Rolling Stone website. Elisabeth Garber-Paul, who previewed the film in detail for Rolling Stone, wrote:
“Indecline teamed up with Saving Banksy director Colin M. Day to turn that footage—as well as footage of their numerous installations since, from prison rooms fabricated in Trump hotels to walking a pack of leashed MAGA supporters—to illustrate the importance of art and satire in the movement for social change.”
How Artists Helped Communities Heal Following Devastating Fires in Oregon
The summer of 2020 was a time of fire and devastation for much of the Western U.S. The combination of human-caused climate change and pervasive forestry mismanagement created the conditions for August 2020’s thunderstorms to cause record-breaking wildfires across California, Oregon, and Washington (as well as additional fires all across the Western states into September). Because of the many factors—torrential winds, hot and dry terrains following drought and logging practices like clear-cutting, worsening storms due to climate change—the situation quickly grew into a disaster as individual forest fires connected and turned into megafires and scorched more than 10.2 million acres of land, destroyed more than 10,000 buildings and took at least 37 people’s lives. In the midst of a global pandemic, people were forced to evacuate to crowded public spaces, as toxic chemical smoke made the air unbreathable and entire cities were advised not to open any windows or go outdoors, for weeks on end.
In addition to mutual aid groups and grief healing circles, artists were instrumental in helping people in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley communities of Talent and Phoenix, just north of Ashland, where many people remained homeless months and years after being displaced by the fires. Ashland resident Laura Loescher, who works as a philanthropic adviser and leadership coach, is also an artist. As a way to contend with the grief of 2020 on a personal level, with the pandemic, racial justice upheavals and the enormity of the climate crisis, she began to create Earth Altar art pieces in 2020.
Her Earth Altars pieces are “impermanent art co-created with nature,” according to her website, and are made with material found in nature that is arranged in mandala-like circling patterns and shapes. They are circles of deep green fern leaves interspersed with orange trumpet flowers; spirals of bright blue chicory arranged with petals and acorns. They are eye-catching patterns of grasses, ferns, sticks, seeds and nuts and flower petals, leaves and rocks arranged in “beautiful ways.” If it is something that can be found walking around outdoors in Ashland, chances are good it will appear in an Earth Altar. After she arranges the altars, she photographs them, and the effect is a striking contrast of bright, circling color against a dark backdrop.
Loescher started out creating Earth Altars, one each day, for herself as a personal practice that helped her feel grounded and connected with the planet. Eventually, she began to share her art with the community and was offered an art show where she could display the altars via wall-hanging canvases and greeting cards. After the devastation caused by the fire, she had the idea to turn them into part of the relief effort.
“[After the fire] I immediately decided that that art show was going to be a fundraiser for this flow fund,” she says. All proceeds from the art show went directly into the flow fund toward fire relief, and then she donated art to families and local businesses impacted by the fires.
She also worked with local filmmaker Katie Teague to organize an event for families who had been impacted by the fire as well as those working on the front lines of disaster relief. They gathered people to create a Community Resilience Earth Altar as a healing ceremony, in a field near the location where the fire started in Ashland.
“We got a bunch of donated flowers from local farms and pulled together a group of people to create this giant altar,” she says. “It had a tree of life in the center, [four smaller circles] representing the four directions [and the four triangular sections coming out of the main central circle] representing each of the communities that were impacted.”
How Artists Helped Spread Awareness about Community Free Fridges
On one side of a refrigerator that stands on a sidewalk in New Orleans, two alligators encircle a woman with dark mocha skin wearing a tattered white slip. Her hair is a single braid that reaches the ground. She stands with her right foot on top of an orange snake. Above her, white birds seem to be flying toward a celestial body. Below her, two white Bengal tigers prowl between two halves of a papaya. This is just one of several paintings created by artist Sydney Calderon in 2020, in support of New Orleans Community Fridges (NOCF), which is a mutual-aid effort setting up refrigerators around the city that offer free food to community members, many of whom struggle with hunger.
Calderon said in a 2020 interview with Independent Media Institute that she is “deeply inspired” by her Mexican heritage, and aims to honor it with her art.
“To me, painting is more than a career; it’s the core of my existence,” she said.“My intention was to combine my personal artistic style of Mexican folk art with various aspects of New Orleans, to create a piece inspired by the whimsical and colorful character of this city,” Calderon said. “My goal in painting the [fridge for NOCF] was to create something beautiful and colorful that everyone could have some sort of ownership over. I think we all kind of absorb our surroundings and are impacted by what we see/experience on a day-to-day basis. I think more regular exposure and accessibility to art could play a huge role in nourishing our community.”
Calderon is one of many artists who helped to spread awareness about community fridges, which began popping up around the nation thanks to local activists looking to provide mutual aid in their communities in response to the economic realities of COVID-19, and the ongoing hunger crisis in America.
Thadeaus Umpster, a longtime organizer with the mutual-aid-oriented anarchist collective In Our Hearts (IOH) NYC, explained in 2020 how residents working with IOH installed New York City’s first community fridge in Brooklyn.To spread the word initially about the free-food fridge effort, Umpster says IOH put up signs and did ample outreach on social media; however, he says the artists who have painted and transformed their local community fridges are largely responsible for generating attention and awareness about the effort.
“A friend of mine who paints under the name HUGO GYRL painted one of the earliest fridges we have, and it changed the whole vibe, the whole feeling on the block that it’s on,” he says. “It made it into the spot where journalists and photographers wanted to come take pictures and spread the idea of what we’re doing.”
Colorful, diverse and elaborate designs cover the community fridges that now dot America, and in large part that artwork is created by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists who have either donated their time and creativity to the cause, or have been paid a small fee for their labor.
For Calderon, who painted the free-food fridge in New Orleans, community art provides a greater narrative around the value and worth of art. She says on a personal level she has been undergoing a “long process of unlearning” the things most of us are taught to assume about fine art, “most importantly, rejecting the idea that fine art is centered around wealth/whiteness.”
“There is absolutely a place for BIPOC in the world of fine art, and I often feel very inspired to depict BIPOC in classical art themes,” she says, pointing out her use of baby cherubs holding a banner that carries messages like “free food” and “community fridge” on one side of the fridge she painted for NOCF.
“As I’ve grown, I’ve begun to challenge what it means to be a ‘great artist,’” she says. “Is it years of technical training and an expensive education in the arts? Or is it the passion and emotion you pour into your work because you have no other outlet or way of expressing yourself? Is it thousands of followers on social media? Or is it direct involvement with your community?”
Calderon adds, “Most recently, I’ve begun to challenge the capitalistic side of fine art. I strongly believe that art is for everybody, not just a handful of wealthy collectors who can afford the standard price for a work of art. Painting the [fridge for NOCF] really enforced that for me.”