Co-founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman on what went down at For Freedoms’ recent Congress
In the years directly preceding the American Revolutionary War of 1776, delegates from the Thirteen Colonies met in two Continental Congresses – first to address their grievances against the British crown, then to sign the Declaration of Independence and establish a de facto government to prepare for war. 56 men took a radical stand against tyranny, declaring that all people are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Nearly 250 years later, the citizens of this nation have watched in horror as their rights have been eroded and repealed by a regime up for re-election this year. Together, we stand at the precipice of a profound moment in history, but this time it affects more than just the nation – it affects the world. As the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed, the federal government will provide no safety net; we are literally on our own.
But there is strength in numbers. This is one of the tenets of democracy: the people united hold powers untold. Collective action is the path towards change, as civic responsibility and community go hand-in-hand. Artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, founders of For Freedoms, recognise the power of creativity to transform the way we see and think about the world. With the understanding that these are revolutionary times, they recently organised the first For Freedoms Congress (FFCon), an anti-partisan platform promoting civic engagement, civil discourse, and action through art for a series of artist-led programs, workshops, and Town Hall programs in Los Angeles from February 28 – March 1, 2020. More than 300 institutions and 1,000 delegates from the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC attended the first FFCon.
Inspired by political conventions and artistic communities coming together in the past like Black Mountain, Vision and Justice, and the Black Artist Retreat, FFCon provided a creative framework for museum curators, administrators, educators, established and emerging artists, civic organisers, and activists working on the front lines in their respective communities to connect and engage at a time when unity is needed more than ever before. During FFCon, Willis Thomas and Gottesman hosted a panel conversation to introduce Wide Awakes, the long-term initiative creative cultural force for all Americans inspired by an 1860s grassroots activist movement of the same name.
Here Willis Thomas, Gottesman, and FFCon Director and art historian Michelle Woo share their experiences creating this historic event and offer their vision for the future.
“History isn’t made alone” – Hank Willis Thomas
Can you speak about the inspiration for and the mission of For Freedoms?
Michelle Woo: Over the past four years, the political climate, conversation, and rhetoric have become reductive and polarising; it doesn’t allow for a multitude of perspectives to enter into that. Art is a way for people to centre their vision and perspective of something that is integral to the health of a well-functioning democracy. It has the power to lend nuance to conversations in the public space. All of our work has been framed by the (Norman Rockwell 1941 paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s) Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Eric Gottesman: Our mission has been to centre artists’ voices in public discourse and to think about the cultural infrastructure, in which there is a political and civic infrastructure overlaid. We want to make creativity an essential American value again. There have been times throughout history when people have come together to propose a new set of ideas that will move forward into the future by creating new institutions and new ways of thinking.
Hank Willis Thomas: Part of the thesis of For Freedoms is that history isn’t made alone; it’s through our collective work, collaboration, mutual respect, and openness that we can make the impact on the world and society that we want. After the 50 State Initiative in 2018, we realised that we were at the centre of a nexus of civic collaborations with all these amazing art institutions and artists but, by and large, we didn’t meet most of our collaborators and none of them had met each other. The Congress was an opportunity for the network to have face-to-face conversations and a larger impact on our individual and collective work in 2020 because of it.
Eric Gottesman: There has long been recognition by governmental bodies, political agencies, and advocacy organisations that art has power. A lot of what underlies our work at For Freedoms is encouraging artists to claim that power. We believe that all art is politics and public policy is based on the culture that art helps to create. A lot of what people brought together and got from the Congress is the sense that there is a strong community built on creativity and a loving feeling. It felt so warm and intimate the whole weekend. It is also built on a common recognition that artists have the power to build a society in which we live, which is really exciting.
Can you describe the aims of the For Freedoms Congress and the programming you created to reflect this?
Michelle Woo: All of our partners are already doing important work in their own communities; what we did was create a framework for folks to do the things they are already doing but in community with one another because it gets tiring. It’s a lonely existence for a lot of us to work in different places across the country without the support of others who are doing similar things.
Eric Gottesman: We had this idea that we wanted to create a coming together but we didn’t really know what that meant. We decided last fall to start planning it. We held a retreat for a couple of days and one of the members, Taylor Brock, said, ‘We always turn things over to artists. Why don’t we do that here?’ That led to a discussion about having sessions led by artists that would propose an artist-produced set of values that For Freedoms could consolidate.
Hank Willis Thomas: We had lofty aims and it really felt like a miracle that it all happened to come together in a significant way. We made a proposal and then struggled through the process of doing something we never knew how to do before to do an event in a city we don’t live in, in collaboration with the county of Los Angeles, the Hammer Museum, and LA MoCA, who have never collaborated before, and then doing a museum at the California African American Art Museum. It was really about trust in ourselves and trust in the community. Our basic principle is to keep the energy in a productive space and keep things positive, which is hard because we come from different political agendas and perspectives.
Michelle Woo: Our grand finale was modelled off a Congressional caucus format so we had a bustling room full of all our attendees and artists who reported different issues that they supported through their various projects and then the audience would stand and publicly announce they are going to support this artist’s project or set of values.
“I hope people walked away feeling recognised, seen, and supported” – Eric Gottesman
Can you share the research you gathered and what will happen with it?
Michelle Woo: We’re in the middle of analysing and exploring everything that we figured out during those three days in community with all these artists. All of these findings from different sessions throughout the weekend will get aggregated and packaged into the Creative Plan of Action for our First Artistic Political Platform. That will get disseminated nationwide along with tools and a framework as a comprehensive creative civic toolkit that anyone can use, including all of our partners and delegates, as well as people we haven’t even met yet sometime this spring. Our hope is to continue to expand this community under the For Freedoms umbrella and bring in more diverse partners too. As artists, our communities have been centred in art and creative spaces but we want to engage folks from other industries as well in using creativity to galvanise and harness action in all corners of the country.
Hank Willis Thomas: We’re still in the afterglow and aggregation phase. Three days after the Congress, several Democratic candidates dropped out of the Presidential race, and then the Coronavirus hit. We are now living in a very different reality than we were in before. How do we double down on community, optimism, and creative civic action because who knows what the real effects of this potential panic is? How much of it is pandemonium, hysteria, and hype, and how much of it is cold hard facts – which is math and science? How do we not get derailed in our efforts at the time? How do we create messaging that is more powerful than the current messaging that has us focused on being scared? We’re not English so we don’t know how to keep calm and carry on. Ironically our theme is being visionaries, not reactionaries. We are being encouraged to go inside and look within for spiritual, communal, and personal reflection – and then find the courage to actually face the world as it is. How do we make ourselves stronger, better, and more effective so that we don’t become victims of our own anxiety and confusion?
How can people get involved?
Michelle Woo: Sign up for our newsletter. We send out a weekly newsletter that outlines our initiatives and priorities in the coming week. We also spotlight community partners like delegates who are doing special projects coming up. We will also be updating our website with all of these materials.
Could you share any key takeaways from this experience?
Eric Gottesman: This event was pretty daunting because the community of people that wanted to participate was bigger than expected. A lot of people are eager to think creatively and not just reactively to what’s happening in our world and our lives right now. Often artists are not paid to participate. We made a decision early on to pay artists and create an economy that supports their work. The only way we are going to move into a future we want to live in that values creativity. A large part of people feeling daunted and overwhelmed is that people don’t feel in control – they don’t feel like they have the power to change things. The power of individual and collective creativity, that is a balm for the collective anxiety that we feel. I walked away floating on cloud nine, feeling like there are all these amazing people in Idaho, Oklahoma, Missouri, who are doing all these incredible things. I hope people walked away feeling recognised, seen, and supported. It can lead to unexpected creative solutions to how we want to live in the world.