Jonathan Gardenhire, “Self Portrait” (2020) (image courtesy the artist)

Contemporary artists and cultural workers are at the forefront of today’s leading issues. Working multiple jobs to make ends meet and the keen ability to galvanize their community, creative types are an untapped group of exciting potential political candidates who are equipped with the lived and professional experience that would benefit public service and policy.

To look at an artist or a cultural worker is to look at a teacher, gig worker, union member, and social worker. In  a survey conducted by Americans for the Arts, 45% said they had a full-time job related to their artistic practice (which doesn’t account for those who work part-time jobs in the arts or those employed outside of the arts). The June Primary in NYC welcomed a new class of creatives who demonstrate the typical hybrid life of artists. Jabari Brisport (SD-25) is a trained actor, in addition to being a public school teacher. Emily Gallagher (AD-50) previously worked in arts administration with Eyebeam. Zohran Kwame Mamdani (AD-36) used to record music, and shared in a recent interview, “When I was a rapper, the ways in which we had to hustle are very similar to the ways in which you have to hustle as a candidate and a canvasser.”

Artists are natural community organizers who know how to mobilize. Also, in June, Brooklyn Liberation, a queer, creative collective of writers, performers and visual artists, organized a march that drew over 15,000 people to hold space for Black Trans lives, after announcing the event only a week prior. In a virtual panel hosted by New Latin Wave, Marty Preciado, the program manager for Grand Park at the Music Center in Los Angeles, urged viewers to apply their agency to political strategy, asking, “What are we doing when it comes to local policy, music venues, our artists, [or the next] stimulus package?” She plans to lobby for policies that nurture cultural equity.

Marty Preciado (image courtesy Marty Preciado)

The soft power of creative expression has proven effective to invigorate support behind a common cause or candidate. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 campaign design abandoned traditional political brand identities; the AOC aesthetic is now a recognizable tool that signals progressive platforms. In 2018, artist collective For Freedoms launched a nationwide initiative utilizing billboards to promote civic engagement by showcasing the work of contemporary artists. This year they launched the decentralized social justice movement, Wide Awakes and  published the Infinite Playbook, a digital toolkit for civic engagement pursuing their long-term goals of building a political and cultural identity around listening, healing, justice, and awakening.

Bridging the gap between the arts and elected office is Jonathan Gardenhire. In 2019 in New York City, at the age of 26, Gardenhire was elected to the post of District Leader, an unpaid position, serving an area that includes parts of Chinatown, the Financial District, and the Lower East Side. He is also a practicing artist, who recently participated in the States of Change fundraiser to advance voting rights, designed a billboard for this year’s For Freedoms 2020 Awakening campaign, and works full time at an NYC arts organization. His goal is to unite his economically diverse district, which includes public housing in the LES, where Gardenhire was raised. “Public housing in New York City has the potential to be a voting block,” he shared. He envisions a network of city-wide public-housing political endorsements: “People could be deciding who our mayor is, who the public advocate is.”

For Freedoms, “2020 Awakening campaign poster” (2020) (courtesy For Freedoms)

The arts are often considered extracurricular, but New York City has proved how integral the arts are in city planning. In 2017, NYC unveiled its inaugural Cultural Plan which increased city funding for museums and art organizations by 35% to almost $212 million. Just prior, the Department of Cultural Affairs, then headed by Tom Finkelpearl, introduced the Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) program in 2015, positioning artists as creative problem solvers and embedding them in areas of city government. Tania Bruguera — who blurs the line between community organizing and contemporary art — worked with the Office of Immigrant Affairs to educate undocumented communities about the IDNYC program. Taja Lindley was a sexual and reproductive justice consultant for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before continuing her work in the department with the PAIR program.

Criminal justice, civic engagement, and human rights causes will benefit from future PAIR artist interventions, these models of creative civic confluence should be replicated in other municipalities and included in national legislation like the Green New Deal. Creatives are embedded in our social fabric and bring with them a wealth of experiences that makes them more than eligible candidates for public office. They may be the missing link.

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Melissa Saenz Gordon

Melissa Saenz Gordon is a cultural worker, editor, and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the co-founder of Soft Power Vote, an independent civic engagement initiative centered on New York...

One reply on “We Need More Creatives in Politics”

  1. Politics is the art of prosecuting hidden agendas. Politics has identified itself in the 21st C as the opaque property of the ruling elite, the 1%. For artists to pander into this realm as if they could possibly change autocracy is a delusion. The best thing artists can do is to help society re-imagine a functional collective self-governing via direct democracy vote on all policy and budget directives. As long as the 1% and all of it’s public-private-partnerships (a GND in this form would be disaster), better called the “corporate state”, Mussolini’s definition of fascism, have final rule over every social decision, we will live as serf-children ruled by bad-parent tyrants.

    An adult society is occupied by humans who work together to create an egalitarian society free of capitalist pyramid scheme and empire and realizing the best world is one where we are all supported by each other. Where we manage resources to be sustainable and equitable. Here is an artist project of mine that envisions such a world created by each and all of us through discussion, advice and consent and collective ownership and management of society…
    Yes We Can!

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