When you look up at a billboard during your commute, what do you usually expect to see? Most of the time, it's nothing but advertisements. Once in a while, though, you find one that's trying to tell you something rather than sell you something.
For Freedoms, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering public dialogues through art, has launched its 50 State Initiative to do just that. The initiative will be led by local organizations and artists in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to produce billboards that speak to issues that affect people's lives every day.
For Freedoms has partnered with Kickstarter to produce 52 simultaneous Kickstarter campaigns, each with the goal of raising $3,000. The 50 State Initiative is the first time Kickstarter has allowed a creator to run multiple fundraising campaigns at once. Patton Hindle, director of arts at Kickstarter, called the project "the largest creative collaboration in United States history."
The hope is that the project will raise the level of civic engagement and public debate in the leadup to the midterm elections.
"The idea is that we are trying to create a decentralized but connected series of conversations that are more nuanced and more relevant to people," For Freedoms cofounder Eric Gottesman says. "One of the problems that I see in a nationalized form of politics is where you choose your political tribe based on what cable news station you watch. We want to create the possibility that there can be conversations that happen locally, that aren’t necessarily quite so tribal and are more based on the conversations that people are having in their lives from a kind of reflective standpoint."
In Florida, the project is partnering with cultural institutions across the state, from Pérez Art Museum Miami to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota to the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. It will also work with universities such as Florida State and Florida International, as well as local nonprofits like the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation. Much of the input, of course, will also come from local artists.
"What we’re going to be doing in all those places and other places across the country is working with partners to put on exhibitions, support public conversations, and also to do artist-led town-hall meetings based on the four freedoms: the freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear," Gottesman says.
This idea might sound inspired by the 2017 film Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, but For Freedoms began using billboards as spaces for topical public-art activations in 2016. And though the organization has made a point of stating the billboards are nonpartisan, that doesn't mean they've been entirely without controversy.
Perhaps the most striking example of those first billboards was the one they placed in Pearl, Mississippi. The sign featured Spider Martin's famous photograph, Two Minute Warning, which depicts civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, standing tall in the face of approaching state troopers on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The image was overlaid with Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," in block letters.
"Our feeling is that art can lend a kind of nuance, can generate a more complicated and nuanced conversation about issues in public life," Gottesman says. "That billboard specifically, it was interesting because we were criticized immediately by both the left and the right. Some people saw it and accused us of being a sort of alt-right white-supremacist organization; others thought we were liberal agitators trying to brew up racial tension."
But amid that criticism, the billboard stood as a successful illustration of how these art-centered pieces of political discourse could generate a broader kind of conversation.
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"Usually, billboards are meant to deliver a specific message," Gottesman says. "We believe that art allows for the possibility of ambiguity, so when we put that billboard up, what was surprising was that people didn’t know how to read it. That opened up all kinds of possibilities, not just about any certain candidate or party, but about the way in which we read political messaging."
The 50 State Initiative will present billboards around the United States this September through December. Its Kickstarter campaigns are accepting contributions through July 3.
So far, For Freedoms is just getting started on working with its partners across the nation to create content and determine the placements of its billboards. Perhaps Floridians will see a sign relating to gun reform or maybe about immigration or sea-level rise. You'll have to keep your eyes peeled to make sure you don't miss the message.
To learn more about the 50 State Initiative and be a part of the conversations that For Freedoms is starting across the country, visit forfreedoms.org. You can also find out more and support the project via its Florida Kickstarter.