For Freedoms, a Super PAC Where Art Meets Politics

Election '16

There’s a new player in the political donor class, and it’s a far cry from the Koch brothers, Priorities USA or any deep pockets on either side of the aisle. For Freedoms is an artist-led super PAC created by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, who are artists themselves. As the two pointed out in a recent phone interview, “Sometimes artists are too shy to engage directly in the political process." To ease this shyness, Thomas and Gottesman are “eager to build a vehicle for artists to have a voice in civic life.”

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© Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Thomas and Gottesman often marry art and politics in their work, Thomas as a conceptual artist and photographer, and Gottesman a video artist, photographer and activist. Thomas is a member of Cause Collective, a public art collective, and Gottesman has created photographic projects and installations in many countries, including Ethiopia and India.

The PAC name is a pun on FDR’s Four Freedoms wartime address that called for protecting “the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.” The PAC is raising money not for specific candidates, but for participating artists to create artwork that reflects a political issue important to them including campaign reform, racism, gender equality, gun control, reproductive rights and freedom of expression. According to the founders, “candidates become a physical embodiment of people's positions on issues. But they become one-dimensional. We are beginning a process of calling that out. Candidates are trying to be pure, but no one is pure.”

For Freedoms kicked off with an exhibit at the Jack Shainman gallery in New York City (on view through July 29), but the show is only the beginning. The goal is to use the money raised to create what Thomas and Gottesman call a "public gallery,” that will take the form of billboards, print advertisements and an online marketing campaign to display the works in as many places as possible. For Freedoms already has a “network of places we're in touch with, including Chicago and San Francisco and St. Louis,” and they’re planning on advertising across the country: “our strategy is going to be to insert these forms of art into popular culture in a way that will reach the highest amount of people.” Both Thomas and Gottesman are adamant about art reaching people who might not otherwise go to an art gallery or become involved in a political cause.

The works range from photographs, collages, paintings, and even food (the People’s Kitchen Collective passed out Black Power Shortbread at the exhibition opening). Carrie Mae Weems is contributing photographs she's taken in front of historical sites that have mixed meanings for Americans of color, “putting her body in places where that body is not welcome,” as Gottesman describes it, including a self-portrait in a long black dress in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Bayeté Ross Smith is completing a series of photographs depicting gun owners with their weapons, which will likely generate heated debate following the tragedy in Orlando. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"613366","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"6519","style":"width: 300px; height: 398px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"4912"}}]]

© Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Trevor Paglen’s work features a voter registration form with a postcard reading “vote for war” attached, which addresses his conflict over supporting any candidate because of their focus on American militarism abroad. Gottesman explained that Paglen “wanted to examine what it means to vote when one the voter in question can’t stomach any of the candidates.” 

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© Trevor Paglen. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures. 

While For Freedoms is focusing on issues and not individual candidates, they are taking marketing and fundraising inspiration from a certain toupee’d Republican nominee, as well as President Obama's (and even Bernie Sanders') ability to raise small amounts across a wide cross-section of America that add up to significant contributions. As Thomas explained, "While we have our own political feelings, [we're] looking at the way different kinds of candidates mobilize... say what you will about Donald Trump, but one thing he has done is use media at a relatively low cost... there's a similarity in how people are targeted and are being reached in terms of the efficiency of how money is spent." 

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© Kameelah Janan Rasheed. Courtsey of Kameelah Janan Rasheed. 

And where will all the money for this nationwide campaign come from? While anyone can donate to For Freedoms via its website, the initial funding ($105,000 already pledged, promised or actually donated as of mid-June) was raised from the wealthier members of the art community. While most artists themselves may not be rolling in cash, Gottesman explained, ”There is money in the community," and “we've had a good run with people supporting us. Our supporters are art collectors, but there is something interesting about how money circulates in the art and political worlds... money has both a generative and corrupting effect.”

For Freedoms wants to explore these effects. They will be rolling out the campaign more heavily through the summer and fall, leading up to the election. While Thomas and Gottesman are keeping specific locations under wraps, they’re aiming to use art to “change the discussion” around politics, hoping to “galvanize the art community” to become more socially conscious and politically involved. 

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© Zoë Buckman. Courtesy of the artist and Bethanie Brady Artist Management. 

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