Dallas — New York philanthropist, Agnes Gund’s generous gift of $1.5 million to start the Art for Justice Fund: A Movement to End Mass Incarceration was recently announced and got me thinking about how artists have used their art in the service of community. It also prompted me to see who was joining Agnes in this endeavor and I was so pleased to see some of the top African-American collectors like Kenneth and Kathryn Chenault, Edith Cooper, A.C. and Thelma Hudgins, Raymond J. McGuire and his wife Crystal McCrary, Dr. Anthony and Robyn Coles and Clarence Otis. Jr. and his wife Jackie Bradley among the founding donors. Dallasites should be proud to know that our own Marguerite Steed Hoffman is also on that list as is former Dallasite and now Houstonian billionaire philanthropist John Arnold and his wife Laura.
Over the years, many famous artists in North America have been a part of the quest to fund programs and organizations engaged in the social justice movements. Artists like Elizabeth Catlett Mora and Francisco Mora participated in the1940s with the Mexican artists workshop El Taller de Gráfica Popular, whose artists produced politically charged prints to educate the poverty-stricken Mexican population. Later, Catlett-Mora would produce prints that were sold to benefit civil rights organizations. Sam Gilliam, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Jonathan Green would also lend their talents to the movement in this way as did other lesser-known African American visual artists. Other artists like Jeff Koons and Peter Blake have produced special works to benefit a wide range of social justice organizations that served causes such as eliminating homelessness, HIV/AIDS research and awareness, gun control, and access to health care for impoverished children. Texas native and art superstar, the late Robert Rauschenberg established a foundation to not just assist struggling artists, which indeed it has, but to also address many of the social ills he witnessed in this country. Although he’s been long gone, the Rauschenberg Foundation currently funds artists engaged in significant work around issues such as the injustices embodied in mass incarceration and eliminating homelessness.
There are a host of performing artists who have lent both their talent and time to further the cause of human rights at home and abroad. But whereas speaking out on abuses abroad is laudable, I am always more appreciative of the American artists who lend their celebrity and donate their money here at home, especially to causes dealing with racial equity. Actors like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston (yes, once upon a time the gun fanatic was heavily involved in supporting the civil rights movement!), and Brad Pitt, singers like Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, and multitalented activist/artist Paul Robeson, marched and donated money for Black civil rights (there were many others but in the interest of space, I’ll stop with these and urge you all to do a little research to see who some of the others were!). More recently musical artists like the late Prince, Janelle Monae, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, are (were in the case of Prince) speaking and protesting in support of The Black Lives Matter Movement and against the blatant police brutality evident nationwide. Actor Jesse Williams has used his Twitter account as ardently as President Trump only he uses his for good not evil! After sharp criticism from artist/activist/icon Harry Belafonte, we finally saw Beyoncé and Jay-Z make a sizeable donation to Black Lives Matter which I hope signals they’re fully onboard in this struggle for racial justice in the USA.
What binds all these people together is celebrity and/or wealth, and that they have a national platform from which to make their positions known and therefore influential. But what about those hundreds of artists who don’t have a bunch of money to donate to the cause of racial justice? I’m thinking of local people like Vickie Washington, who tirelessly hits the streets when marching is necessary but spends an equal if not greater portion of her time registering people to vote, making calls to get people out to vote, educating our next generation about the importance of being an artist/activist. Or people like Denise Lee who I was just on a Dallas march with protesting police brutality here in our city. Denise is working to organize people who have to date been silent about racial inequality but who now understand, silence is not an option. And you can count on artists Cora Cardona, Jeff Hurst, Giovanni Valderas and David Lozano to hit the streets when necessary to bring awareness to a myriad of social and racial justice failings. These are artists who stand to gain nothing by standing up for what’s right and in fact have a lot to lose in our all too often conservative town. But stand up they do and give the one thing they do have to give, their precious time and I applaud them for that!
It’s wonderful when artists and collectors that have big bucks give to causes because we all know money talks, bullshit walks. But we must also acknowledge that the work to change America’s racist systems also demands participation by everyday artists like me and the others I mentioned earlier. It demands that everyone seeking to see a change get involved in working to see this change and not just leave the heavy lifting for the few committed artists that are rapidly becoming “the usual suspects” when the call to action is sounded. Everyone’s efforts are needed if we expect to see equity become a reality. The racial injustices associated with mass incarceration are as present in Dallas as in every other big city and police brutality is as well. The arts in service to racial justice is not a new concept but it is one that needs more support from more of the Dallas arts community.
Agnes Gund managed, with the sale of just one of her art holdings, to raise the conversation around racial injustice as evidenced by mass incarceration to a higher level and involve some other very wealthy donors in the dialogue. I hope our Dallas artistic community begins to broaden its scope and embrace the notion of joining in the fight to eliminate racial injustice in all aspects of our lives.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- Vicki Meek ART-iculates (April 2016)
- On Dallas and Cultural Equity (May 2016)
- Equity vs. Diversity (June 2016)
- An Arts Super PAC? (July 2016)
- Too Big to Fail? (August 2016)
- It Isn't Us Against Them (September 2016)
- Another Missed Opportunity (October 2016)
- Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea (November 2016)
- Save Our Summer Programs (Decemeber 2016)
- The Creative Community in the Trump Era (January 2017)
- Being a Black Artist in a White World (February 2017)
- Expanding Our Cultural Horizons (March 2017)
- Intercultural Self-Determination (April 2017)
- A New Cultural Plan (May 2017)