Coming to a Billboard Near You: An Artist-Led Political Group Is Organizing the Largest Public Art Collaboration in US History

For Freedoms is teaming the Kickstarter to make a splash in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, DC.

A For Freedoms billboard created by Spider Martin, installed in Pearl, Mississippi in 2016. Courtesy Wyatt Gallery.

For Freedoms, the non-partisan organization founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman in 2016, has launched the first part of an ambitious new initiative that they’re calling the largest public art project and creative collaboration in US history.

The 50 State Initiative is a $1.5 million project aiming to increase political engagement throughout the country through a series of local town hall meetings, art exhibitions, workshops, and artist-made billboards installed in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The billboards will go up early this fall, in advance of midterm elections, while the other educational and outreach components of the initiative will take place from September through December.

Willis Thomas and Gottesman’s For Freedoms platform was originally created as an artist-run super-PAC, but it has since evolved into a broader non-profit organization. To fund the billboards, they partnered with Kickstarter, an online crowdfunding platform with a history of collaborating with artists. This morning, the project was officially kicked off with the launch of 52 separate crowdfunding drives on the site. The only reward tier is at $10, and goal is to raise $3,000 in each state—requiring that only 300 people per campaign donate to make the project a reality.

A For Freedoms billboard created by Trevor Paglen, installed in Denver, Colorado in 2016. Courtesy Wyatt Gallery.

The billboards funded by the Kickstarter campaigns will be created by artists chosen by the partnering institutions in each state. Additional billboards done by For Freedoms artists, including Tania Bruguera, Theaster Gates, Trevor Paglen, and Carrie Mae Weems, among many others, will also be installed throughout the country, funded by additional partnering institutions. As of now, over 200 partner institutions—such as museums, schools, and arts organizations—and 175 artists have signed on to the project, with more expected to be announced upcoming weeks. (The full list of institutional partners can be found online.)

This is the first time Kickstarter has allowed one creator to host more than one campaign at once. But for the company, the project was worth bending the rules.

Upon approaching Kickstarter late last year, “Hank felt, conceptually, that it made the most sense to have 52 separate campaigns so that each state felt a sense of responsibility and that we also were able to take care of each other and track who needed help in a more finite way,” Patton Hindle, director of Kickstarter’s arts program, tells artnet News. “Our founder, Perry Chen, is an artist himself, so he inherently understands the importance of a project like this. For us, it was pretty much a no-brainer.”

A For Freedoms billboard created by Carrie Mae Weems and installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. Courtesy Wyatt Gallery.

A For Freedoms billboard created by Carrie Mae Weems and installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. Courtesy Wyatt Gallery.

“Instead of supporting a political party or pushing a partisan agenda, we strive to empower everyone to feel welcome in civic discourse,” For Freedoms staff members declare in a video produced for the project. “We want our billboards to be catalysts for people to think differently, to engage with ideas with compassion and nuance,” Willis Thomas says in the same video.

“Our goal is to bridge communities together,” explains Hindle. “While these campaigns are serving localized communities, we as a global, digital platform can connect arts patrons and believers from all over the world.”

“We believe art is a necessity, especially in civic discourse,” she continues. “At its simplest level, we’re hoping to see more art exist in the world.”

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