“We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation.”
That’s what artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman have to say about the current American political climate.
Their frustration, shared by many Americans, is not unique. But their solution, the creation of an artist-run super PAC called “For Freedoms,” is without precedent.
“We created the first artist-run super PAC because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process,” they write on the For Freedoms website. “Our medium for this project is American democracy, and our mission is to support the effort to reshape it into a more transparent and representative form.”
Kansas City collector Sharon Hoffman, co-chair of For Freedoms’ advisory board, has had a seat at the table since Thomas conceived the idea. She’s known him for years. Thomas, whose artworks often critique media imagery, is one of many leading black artists that Hoffman and her husband, developer John Hoffman, have collected; the couple now owns one of the leading collections of contemporary African American art in the region.
In 2008 and 2012 Hoffman was in charge of the Obama campaign in Kansas City and Aspen, where the couple has a second home.
The artist super PAC all started, she said, in 2014. Over pizza at a party at Chicago art dealer Monique Meloche’s, Thomas asked about her involvement with the Obama campaign and broached the idea of forming a super PAC.
“I said, ‘go for it,’” Hoffman said. “You’re interested in politics and you should get more involved.”
The conversation resumed last summer, Hoffman said, when she and her husband sponsored Thomas as a visiting artist at Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen. Over dinner, Thomas raised the Super PAC idea again, and Hoffman again encouraged him.
“Hank is all about branding. He’s very much aware of how media looks at things, how advertising uses the image, and he’s aware of how strong an image can be with or without any text.”
Hoffman, appointed by President Obama to be a member of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, used her connections to help put Thomas in touch with lawyers in D.C., who knew the ins and outs of setting up a super PAC.
“I never thought he’d get it done,” Hoffman said. “It’s a huge undertaking, and usually you need lots of money to even start it. On the first of January I got a call: ‘I did it. It’s done.’ Hank brought in Eric Gottesman, whose father was a state senator who had started a number of NGOs in Africa, as a partner.”
The next few months saw a flurry of phone calls and meetings. Thomas brought in photographer Wyatt Gallery to be director of the operation and lined up leading artists, including Carrie Mae Weems, Rashid Johnson, Xaviera Simmons, Fred Tomaselli and Marilyn Minter to contribute images.
Whereas most super PACS “leave imaging up to graphic designers,” Hoffman said, “Hank thought: ‘The super PACs dumb down the message. Why not let artists come up with the images? What they’re trained to do is elevate the conversation.’
“What they wanted to do was to raise the level of dialogue in the country — (let) people see an image and have a dialogue about it. The images are based on the Four Freedoms that were articulated by Roosevelt: speech, religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want. Those are the foundation, and today there are others: freedom to vote, freedom for women to control their own bodies, freedom to live without harassment.”
On April 24 The New York Times published an article about the artist super PAC, and in June For Freedoms opened an exhibit at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. “He represents Hank,” Hoffman said. “The For Freedoms headquarters are there.”
The exhibit, which continued to the end of July, featured works by roughly four dozen artists who are collaborating with For Freedoms; next their works will be reproduced in ads and billboards.
San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) has asked for the images,” Hoffman said; this fall the system will feature 150 of them.
In August, For Freedoms launched a campaign to get one thousand people to join the PAC. Also in the works: A plan to send a reproduction of Nari Ward’s Mass Action text work created from shoelaces, around the country. Billboards with For Freedoms artworks will be mounted in multiple communities, and the Times Square Jumbotron will feature an image by Carrie Mae Weems.
In September, Hoffman said, For Freedoms will move its headquarters to Chicago in order to assume a presence in the city during the Expo Chicago art fair, Sept. 22-25. The group is exploring placing artworks on benches throughout the city as well as an exhibition on the Navy Pier mezzanine. “How great,” Hoffman said, “for art and politics to come together!”
For more information, www.forfreedoms.org.