“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” – James Baldwin
For Freedoms was founded in 2016 by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman to provide a platform for collaboration among artists, institutions, and their respective communities. Named for Norman Rockwell’s visual rendering of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, For Freedoms believes civic engagement is rooted in participation, not partisanship, and artists play an integral role in the nation’s civic life.
More than 500 artists, curators, and arts administrators traveled to Los Angeles in February 2020 to attend the inaugural For Freedoms Congress; 7 of those attendees represented the 21c Museum team. Artist-led programs and workshops brought “delegates” from every corner of the U.S. to build a Creative Plan of Action prior to the upcoming presidential election. The four-day event created connections among us; we learned from one another, sharing and absorbing information and inspiration. Little did we know, the Congress would be one of our final acts of occupying meaningful physical space with others before isolation became the new normal.
21c and For Freedoms share many beliefs:
Artists are problem solvers. Creative thinking is society’s most powerful currency.
Inclusion of voices and perspectives is necessary to transcend divisions. Representation matters.
Art is the highest form of hope.
We also share Kentucky roots.
The For Freedoms Congress culminated with the introduction of the contemporary “Wide Awakes,” named for a small, yet powerful political movement started in 1860 by Kentucky politician Cassius Marcellus Clay, the most famous Southern Abolitionist. Born into a prominent, slave-owning family, his pro-abolitionist political activities in northern states sparked the Wide Awake movement, which became instrumental in the founding of the Republican party, amassing over 500,000 members by the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Clay and his like-minded activists were radical and visionary for their time, advocating for unity and equality when America was fiercely divided. In homage to the original Wide Awake, the leaders of the Congress donned capes as they spoke and sang and danced, and then invited all the delegates to join the party. Everyone had a chance to wear one of the vibrant, patterned capes in an informal ritual that was inspiring, empowering, and deeply moving.
Past collaborations with For Freedoms have resulted in several artist-created billboards, exhibitions, and local conversations addressing our communities’ challenges. The Congress provided an opportunity to expand and envision how our organizations could merge with others to encourage engagement this year and into the future. Now, reality has forced a pause and recalibration. How can we best facilitate the viewer-art exchange? How do we continue conversations, offer creative voices, and innovate within unprecedented constraints? And how do we all build on the momentum created when individuals shared space, thought, and face-to-face relationships just two short months ago? For now, both 21c and For Freedoms build connections virtually, continuing to amplify the myriad ways in which art drives civic engagement and nurtures community.
Experience one of many creative debuts, FOR….FREEDOM, from the For Freedoms Congress here.
More about FOR…….FREEDOM: In today’s media and politics, truth and facts often get spun out of control. FOR… FREEDOM is an animated film by Lyndon Barrois that takes inspiration from this concept of “spin,” putting at its center artist Shantell Martin who is caught circling through the landscape until she breaks free – her lines find the shapes of each state in our country. Set to Aja Monet’s poem Sometimes An Artist, this film is a meditation of the important role that art, artists, and everyday Americans play in unifying a torn nation.
Director and Animator – Lyndon Barrois Sr.
“Somewhere an Artist” – Aja Monet
Drawings – Shantell Martin
Producers – Tanya Selvaratnam and Taylor Block
“Amazing Grace” Composition and Sounds Effect – Willard Hill
“Amazing Grace” French Horn courtesy of Robert Lee Watt and Todd Cochran