Art and Elections

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 15, No 2 (Summer 2004)

Judi Jennings

What roles will arts and cultural organizations and funders play in the November 2004 election?

This crucial question was the subject of two conference calls on Art and Elections hosted by National Voice in January and February, 2004. National Voice is a coalition of nonprofit and community groups working to maximize public participation in our nation's democratic process. They had become aware of innovative civic participation efforts involving the arts and wanted to know how to support this non-partisan work and stimulate cross-fertilization among arts groups, artists, and non-arts voter efforts. The calls included approximately sixty artists, arts organizations, funders and arts networks across the country. The purpose of the calls was to share ideas and information about the challenges, innovative possibilities and legal parameters of creating and funding arts and cultural activities related to the upcoming national elections.

I participated in the January call along with other GIA members including Helen Brunner of the Albert A. List Foundation, Lisa Mount of Alternate ROOTS, and Ted Berger of the New York Foundation for the Arts. National Voice subsequently conducted a funder briefing in New York City in which other GIA members participated.

The call revealed different ways that arts groups are engaged in civic participation: through diverse partnerships, voter registration and education, using theaters and galleries as civic spaces, creating work on topics related to democracy, organizing candidate forums, and holding national conferences.

Examples of recent projects focusing on art and the elections include:

  • DiverseWorks, in Houston, is participating in Margaret Crane and Jon Winet's national "2004: America and the Globe" multimedia exploration of the 2004 election cycle. The project focuses on the presidential elections and democratic practice in the United States. It is a hybrid experimental work operating at the intersections of art, journalism, documentary, hypertext fiction, technology research, and citizenship.
  • The Imagine Festival (a festival of arts, issues, and ideas) is scheduled to coincide with the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Imagine '04 will address critical subjects such as the economy, health care, education, civil liberties, and environmental and global responsibility. It will bring together artists, humanitarians, scientists, spiritual leaders, and many others to present original art work and ideas that direct public dialogue to rethinking the festival's central subject areas.
  • Urban Bush Women has initiated "Are We Democracy?" a series of voter education/voter registration projects. Participants in their Brooklyn-based summer institute will collect stories focusing on why people do or do not vote. They will also explore the history surrounding the hard-won voting privileges for women and African Americans. A performance piece will be created from these stories and presented publicly.

One of the key concerns among conference call participants was what nonprofits can and cannot do legally as 501(c)(3) organizations. To address these concerns National Voice organized a subsequent call with lawyer Holly Schadler. She advised people on the legal parameters of civic participation and election work. Nonprofits can legitimately play important roles in non-partisan voter registration, education, and get-out-the-vote efforts "targeted to under-represented classes." Other important topics covered in the legal briefing dealt with "wedge" issues, freedom of expression, categories of speech, disclaimers, speaker guidelines, mailing lists, opinion polls, and the limits to lobbying.

Participants in the calls also spoke about how to support connections among arts activities and between the arts and other sectors. Representatives of Common Cause and Let's Talk America participated in the calls and expressed interest in pursuing collaborations with artists and arts organizations.

Youth-oriented programs have been leading the way in making creative connections between art and activism. The Nathan Cummings Foundation is supporting some of these efforts, such as the National Hip Hop Political Convention, We Got Issues, and the League of Young Voters Training Program.

  • The goal of the National Hip Hop Political Convention is to place the concerns that are most most pressing to the hip-hop generation on center stage in venues and in conversations where young people have entrée. Each delegate to the convention must register fifty people.
  • We Got Issues is an initiative of The Next Wave of Women & Power/1+1+ 1=ONE . It uses multimedia and the performing arts to encourage a national dialogue among women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This arts and civic transformation project aims to address the most relevant issues facing diverse young women in the U.S. today.
  • League of Young Voters Training Program engages seventeen to thirty-five-year-olds in the democratic process through grassroots peer-to-peer voter education training, leadership development, and arts-based civic dialogue. The young artists who have been identified to participate as trainers include singers, composers, photographers, spoken word artists, playwrights, and actors as well as visual and media artists.

As these examples show, arts and cultural organizations and funders are already playing an important role in the upcoming national elections.

Further Resources
National Voice has developed an electronic library of technical, legal, and organizing information; an online clearinghouse of effective tools and strategies; a volunteer matchmaking service to help organizations and funders find each other; and a media initiative. All the programs described in this piece are included on the Web site www.nationalvoice.org; you can find more by searching on “arts and culture.” They also have services for funders, including regular funder briefings, legal calls, a private matchmaking site on the Web where funders can see proposals from 501(c)(3) organizations nationwide, and regular updates about exemplary projects.

In addition to the resources included on the National Voice Web site, two other good resources are: The Alliance for Justice (www.afj.org) that educates grantmakers on their legal rights, and the SPIN Project (www.spinproject.org) that has just released “Loud and Clear in the Election Year.”

For more information about National Voice and arts programs relating to the election, contact Caron Atlas, National Voice arts and culture consultant, caron@nationalvoice.org. For general information about National Voice, contact Mark Ritchie, national coordinator, mark@nationalvoice.org.

Judi Jennings is executive director, Kentucky Foundation for Women.