Zoë Sundara doesn’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of her life. A senior at Manhattan’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Sundara is a vocal major, as well as a poet and spoken word artist, and she’s been dancing practically since she could stand up. So when Donald Trump ran for presidency and was subsequently elected, Sundara took his anti-arts agenda personally.
Throughout the campaign, Sundara had paid close attention to what Trump said about the arts, and she didn’t like what she heard. “When he was running, he talked about cutting funding of the arts,” she said. And as President, he’s proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts altogether.
Infuriated, Sundara did what most activists and community organizers do these days: She planned an event through Facebook and used the platform to spread the word. The night before the event — which wasn’t exactly a protest but a gathering — she seemed excited when we spoke by phone. Nearly 8,000 people had clicked the “Interested” button on Facebook and around 1,000 had committed themselves as “Going.” Rain was in the forecast, but she didn’t seem worried. In fact, she seemed confident that the event would just organically become whatever it needed to be.
For veteran protesters and rally-goers, Artists Rise Up may have seemed a little ambiguous or without a clear purpose. There was no march, no rallying cries, and most notably, no big-name celebrities or speakers showing up to lend the event star power or inspiration, no politicians tumbling out of black cars, being ushered onto a stage with an inadequate sound system, where they’d make a quick speech before rushing back to the cars and make way to their next event. And that’s exactly how Sundara planned it. “There’s less organization because that’s not me,” she said. “And it’s not artists either. We’re free-form. There will be poetry readings. There will be no speeches.”
Despite her contention that organization isn’t her style, Sundara managed to secure a pretty prime piece of New York real estate for Artists Rise Up, and art world real estate at that. Nearly half of the long block of 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue was gated for the event and about a dozen police monitor happenings. About twice as many artists occupied a space in front of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The artists were fellow LaGuardia students, adults who found out about the event by searching Facebook for local Trump protests, and members of the activist group, Brooklyn Rebels, who showed up with homemade placards that read “Ask Me about #SavetheArts Postcard Protest” — a campaign involving artists making their own postcards in support of continued funding for the arts that are then sent to representative and senators. There was also Trump himself, in papier-mâché form. He wielded a golden golf club with one hand, using it to hit a classical bust that posed like a golf ball on Easter basket grass. With his other hand, he helped turn a spit, where a likeness of Big Bird was roasting.
The fact that the hundreds who had RSVP’d for the event didn’t actually show up — there were only a couple dozen people — didn’t seem to bother the protestors present, or Sundara. Maggie, a senior at LaGuardia who preferred to not disclose her last name, held a hand-drawn cardboard sign that read “The Brush is Mightier Than the Sword,” and said that everyone who showed up was committed to making an important point. “Artists are like politicians in a sense,” she said, “we’re just not well-paid. But we make statements and we get messages out, and we don’t have to go through Congress to do it. We get the word out faster.” Maggie surmised that Trump “maybe didn’t grow up with art” and that his effort to “make everyone uniform” is an insult, especially to artists and their individuality.
But whether the word was actually getting out wasn’t clear. Among the few protestors, a small handful held signs and one was engaged in a performance piece, wearing a homemade hat pasted with fake money and handing out play cash. A few passersby asked me what was going on, curious enough to ask and satisfy their desire to know, but not enough to stick around or join in. Well-dressed movie- and theater-goers, many carrying bouquets of flowers, strolled past on their way to a Lincoln Center event, paying little mind to the quiet group of artists.
In the end, did Artists Rise Up matter? Of course it did. Those most committed to the idea of the event and what it represented showed up, exercising the rights of assembly and self-expression. However, perhaps it was the reactions, or lack thereof, that ultimately matter more. The disinterest on the part of those passing by on the way to a Lincoln Center event can bear multiple readings, including generalized New Yorker apathy. But in a neighborhood that is so symbolically and concretely enriched by the arts, the divide between privileged patrons and artists was stark and sad and doesn’t portend well for a unified front against the anti-arts agenda Sundara is on a mission to resist.
Artists Rise Up took place at 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan on Thursday, April 20 .