The 50 State Initiative from For Freedoms
Last year, a series of Kickstarter projects kicked off with one goal, to use public advertising space to change the course of a political discussion in America. The non-profit organization For Freedoms launched 52 separate Kickstarter campaigns to put up 52 billboards in all 50 States, from D.C. to Puerto Rico. This public art project gave the billboard space to artists around the country, who wanted to have their say around politics in the country ahead of the midterm elections.
Artist Paula Crown’s work in Los Angeles, California. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
They met their crowdfunding goal (yay!) and the billboards—many which are without words—went up last week around the country. For Freedoms claims it’s the largest creative collaboration in American history. This billboard project, called the 50 State Initiative, launched a few weeks ago across the U.S. and over 300 artists are part of the project, including Fred Tomaselli’s I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up billboard in Helena, Montana, Paula Crown’s Hurt People Hurt People showing in Los Angeles and Marilyn Minter’s piece that reads “Sad!” in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Artwork Wyatt Gallery in Olympia, Washington. Courtesy Culture Counsel
We spoke to the For Freedoms co-founder Eric Gottesman (who-co founded this project with Hank Willis Thomas) on creating visual puzzles, raising questions and how the public finds them through their logo.
You pulled it off, what has the response been like so far?
Eric Gottesman: The response has been very exciting. A lot of people are responding in ways we didn’t expect, Emily Jacir’s billboard that says “Translate Allah,” which is in Salem. People have been calling the billboard company and asking “what is this about?” People are taking notice, how to digest what they mean in the context of what’s happening today. Another example is Canadian artist Luis Jacob, who did a billboard in Vermont, featuring the names of Indigenous people who occupy that land. People in that community reached out and wanted to create a conversation with Luis. Different kinds of conversations are happening in the country based on these billboards and designs.
Artist Rashid Johnson’s work in Los Angeles, California. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
How do people find you?
Each billboard says its paid for by For Freedoms, they all have our logo. People look us up or call the billboard company to inquire what the billboard means. That’s a huge sign of success. But also, it’s part of larger 50 State Initiative, which includes town hall meetings, dialogues in art museums and exhibits to create a nationwide dialogue around these things, often the response is a question. What does this mean? What do you think it means? We don’t know. Help us figure out what this means together.
Artist Jeffrey Gibson’s work in Raleigh, North Carolina. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
How did you choose the artists?
We reached out to artists we were interested in and wanted to figure out the complex puzzle of how to feature artists in this project. What we are trying to do now is open the conversation to bring together many voices. We reached out to artists well known all the way to other end, young students or students, covering geographic diversity.
Four Freedoms in New Orleans, Louisiana. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
You’ve said that it’s not about taking sides of the political spectrum, what is your vision?
It’s no one specific thing, but we offered some guidelines; to be anti-partisan, to not take sides, to be open and ask questions, even if they don’t end in a question mark. Even if we don’t get the messages, we put them out. We are putting out the puzzles of artists in certain cities across the country. Some artists felt like a certain part of the country would make sense, others wanted to be as close to the Mexican border as possible, or a certain region, we tried to honor those requests.
Artist Kambui Olujimi’s work in Des Moines, Iowa. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
Was this timed with the midterm election?
It was conceived in a way to get artists and institutions engaged with civic participation. Also to expand what civic participation means. It’s not just voting, it’s about using our voices to speak up about the things we feel strongly about. We believe all art is political, so when artists get engaged, the conversation changes. Its important for artists voices not to be marginalized or only to be seen in these elite institutions, but more at the center of public life. I want to stress this is a part of the initiative with over 200 cultural institutions and 400 artists across the country, the billboards are iconic but there will be waves of things like talks and exhibitions. The billboards are up through the end of November.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas’s work in Syracuse, New York. Courtesy Cultural Counsel
With this billboard project, are you hoping to shift a change?
The shift and change we want is to add more nuance in the kind of conversation we have in public about the issues most important to us. By inserting artist voices into the landscape and into the public conversation, we hope to do that.