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In a New Political Era, Art and Cultural Institutions Take a Stand

By Mercedes Vizcaino, Contributing Writer, February 17, 2017

It’s 2017: a new Republican administration is in place, social media platforms are rampant with political opposition, call-to-action rallies, and clips of “Saturday Night Live” characterizations of the White House inner circle. American news organizations are fact-checking the new administration. News alerts on devices are abuzz every minute of the day with unfathomable political updates. This may seem like a plot for an-over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster designed to make you anxious, with a rosy happy ending in sight – but no, it’s American reality with an unclear finale in the foreseeable future.

As artists and cultural institutions nationwide wait with bated breath for the Trump administration’s detailed plan on federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, organizations have taken action with cultural statements about our current political climate. New installations, forums, exhibits and performances aimed to start conversations and impact change are underway.

On the eve of the presidential inauguration, The Public Theatre joined with member theater communities around the country to launch the Ghostlight Project: Be a light – an event inspired by the tradition of leaving a ghost “light” on in a darkened theater, a pledge to uphold the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone – regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation. Members gathered outside theaters simultaneously, across time-zones, to create a “light” for dark times ahead with cellphones, flashlights and candles.

Days later, President Trump signed executive orders barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.

In reaction, The Museum of Modern Art quickly responded by showcasing works by artists affected from the majority-Muslim nations on its walls, replacing the works of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. According to The New York Times, Chief Curator of Drawings and Prints, Christophe Cherix, carried out the decision to hang the works from these artists to reflect MoMA’s mission of “solidarity with artists from different countries.” Works from these artists will be on display for the next few months in the 5th floor gallery.

During the president’s first 100 days, MoMA PS1, The Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary affiliate, is hosting a residency for Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman’s artist-run political action committee, For Freedoms. The project began with the display of a billboard “For Freedoms,” created and posted in Mississippi during the election to spark and inspire political engagement with art. The artists use billboards, posters and advertisements to encourage discussions of core democratic values.

'For Freedoms' billboard

A billboard in Mississippi, part of an art project by the political action committee, For Freedoms.

While we sought comments from a number of arts and cultural institutions on the new administration, the majority were apprehensive to comment. The French Institute Alliance Français’ (FIAF) president, Marie-Monique Steckel noted that last year, both the Democratic and Republican party campaign platforms made no mention of arts funding plans, and she hopes art institutions open communications with artists from around the world and welcome their exhibits and performances, to promote inclusivity and diversity.

While FIAF’s mission is to offer New Yorkers programming that explores the richness of French cultures, the organization is vested in hosting events that exemplify diversity. In January, FIAF partnered with the Prototype Festival to present a performance of Silent Voices by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, featuring new music that explores race and identity, inequity and social disparity through the power of music and integration. FIAF also recently introduced the program BRIDGING: A French-American Dialogue on Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts, a new initiative exploring issues of cultural equity in the US and France, presented in partnership with the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations. To see FIAF’s full schedule of cultural offerings in 2017, click here.

It is early days. And while the arts boast the power to impact change, change can be a two-way street. The dialogue between the arts community and the new administration will be fascinating to watch.

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[Editor’s Note: This feature has been revised to include updated information since its original publication date.]

Cover: Gallery at MoMA PS1 / For Freedoms Artist Residency; photo: courtesy of MoMA PS1.


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