Artist As Citizen

By reaching talented, creative people while they're still in school, and giving them the opportunity to investigate subjects of importance to their lives, we can both change their awareness and add to the public dialogue essential to a functioning democracy.
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I'm the co-founder of a project called Artist As Citizen. We connect art
students with donors to help them create projects on social issues.


I can answer this two ways.

One way: about a week before the invasion of Iraq, in March, 2003, I was
walking down the street near the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan,
and stopped to study an enormous bus shelter ad for Hummer right in front
of the school. It was a great visual: the big yet toy-like Hummer was
bright yellow against a deep blue sky. The headline read "Perfect for
Rugby Moms." Clever.

I stood there on the sidewalk, attracted but bemused. Manhattan's
relationship to oil seemed pretty shaky. I'd just read an article in the
Wall Street Journal recounting America's thirty years of failure in
cutting our energy appetite. I'd caught an interview (on PBS) with John
Lewis Gaddis, historian at Yale, where he described the forthcoming Iraq
invasion as "a strategy that's ultimately targeted at the Saudis" because
it could free us from our dependence on the Saudi oil supply. The nation
was on the brink of war, and 9/11 was still fresh in the mind.

I could still remember the smell of the smoke more than a year after 9/11,
but I didn't want to get too caught up in reality. The Hummer ad was
great! I work in advertising and I admired its audacity. There had been
several big protests preceding the Iraq war, but I had to laugh - they
were so easily out-communicated by this upbeat poster (as demonstrated
shortly, when the war happened despite the protests, and people still
bought Hummers). Even in my favorite weekly magazine, the New Yorker,
where writers debated WMD and the hopeful prospects for democracy in Iraq,
the journalistic fretting was trumped by this bold, funny ad; it had the
back cover of the New Yorker that week.

I remember standing in front of SVA, feeling mesmerized by the cognitive
dissonance. How does a free market democracy communicate? What's the
difference between being a citizen and being a consumer? Between being a
journalist and an advertiser? And it occurred to me that I stood in front
of a building full of young, creative people, an untapped resource with
which to explore these questions, which were only likely to be more urgent
to them, a generation facing a confusing reality.

A couple of months later, I found myself in the office of Charles Traub,
chair of the MFA Photo program at SVA, proposing an idea that was to
become The Artist As Citizen. We took the idea to his students, and for a
start, one member of the class, Ian Umeda (MFA, 2005), adopted the project
as his thesis.

Now, after a couple of years of tinkering and installing and uninstalling
various elements, Ian and I have a conceptual platform we are ready to
roll out to the world. And that brings me to my second answer.

Imagemakers shape how society sees things. By reaching talented, creative
people while they are still in school, and giving them the opportunity to
investigate subjects of real importance to their lives, we can both change
their awareness and add to the public dialogue essential to a functioning
democracy. Once they graduate, creative students take increasingly
powerful roles in advertising and media, and we aim to give them an early
experience in critical thinking about larger issues.

This transformative motive exists also in concepts like the Peace Corps
and Teach For America, where the participants themselves are changed by
their work. And the concept is scalable. Drawing on interested donors and
guest editors, we can grow to provide microgrants to dozens of talented
students in the arts; ultimately we'd like to be able to offer engagement
in the program to more than 100 students a year, at both the undergraduate
and graduate level. Within a few years, they will be out in the
marketplace, and we'd like to provide the foundation for their portfolios.


For our initial experiment, we asked an SVA undergrad to do portraits and
interviews with two men at their day jobs: a climate scientist, and an ad
exec. Our student let them describe their jobs in their own words. It
worked well and can be seen on our site. We've put together three more
trial projects - including one in Mali, about climate and Africa, and a
series on wealth, featuring Professor Jeffrey Sachs. Our next project
features portraits of Israeli and Palestinian volunteers in the OneVoice
peace movement, founded by Daniel Lubetzky. For this, we will have an
American, an Israeli, and a Palestinian photo student combine efforts to
create the essay - and we will have our first well-known guest editor.
(Stay tuned.)

I look forward to reporting on our progress and related matters here on a
regular basis - and we'd love to hear from people interested in our
project as well. The intersection of politics, consumer desire, identity,
and communications gives us multiple opportunities for education, and for
asking questions you'd like answers to. For sure we're not going to think
of all of the best questions to ask by ourselves.