Ken Grossinger’s new book, Art Works: How Organizers and Artists are Creating a Better World Together, finds inspiration at the intersection of art and organizing, with examples ranging from George Floyd Square to Central America. Andrew Friedman, Senior Director of Strategy at The Action Lab and Director of the Initiative for Community Power at NYU, talked with him about the book.

Andrew Friedman: I really enjoyed reading the book. It was a great read. I would love to hear what inspired you to write this book.

Ken Grossinger: In terms of my inspiration, I guess there were several. One is, like you and like The Forge audience, I want to win. What we're doing is not sufficient. My personal experience has been in the organizing community for 25 years and in philanthropy for another 10 or so. During the time that I learned how to organize, learned how to think about organizing, art and culture were never a part of what was taught. During the time that I practiced, I never included it. And when I started teaching young organizers how to think about organizing, I never taught it. And then I married an artist and I felt like I missed a pretty important boat.

What I learned is that it wasn't just organizers who did not think strategically about how to use art and culture to advance their work, but it was artists who saw their work as individual forms of expression, sometimes political, sometimes not, but not in the service of social movements.

We had an issue on both sides, even though as my book describes as a long history of doing this kind of work, the scale of collaboration right now is not significant enough to make a difference. I really felt if we don't address the art and cultural components of this, we miss out because social protest can lead to legislative victories and policy victories. But when power changes hands, those victories get rolled back.

And that's in part because we never address the narratives underlying those fights. And the book is an attempt to demonstrate how art and culture does that across different genres and in the context of social movements. It also takes a look at the nature of collaboration between artists and organizers, what the difficulties are so that we can be clear about how to remedy that problem, as well as what works.

Andrew Friedman: If you had to speak to what you hope the impact of the book will be, what would you say is at the top of the list?

Ken Grossinger: I think I want the book to reinforce and add some intellectual heft to the trajectory of others that do the work. And I want to introduce the idea to institutions and some community organizations and art networks that don't think about this, but have the capacity to do so.

Andrew Friedman: In your book you described a variety of models for collaboration between artists and organizers. You described three almost paradigmatic forms of collaboration or models for collaboration. Could you recount those here, speak to the nature of each model, and some of the potential benefits and challenges of each?

Ken Grossinger: The book itself is careful not to prescribe or be prescriptive about one model or the other. And it's one of the reasons why I take such a broad range outlook. So the civil and human rights chapter and Black Lives Matter chapter is very different than the music chapter, which is very different than the immigrant rights and environmental justice chapters. There are different models that work and there's a lot that don’t. It's easy to identify where, in the different approaches to social change, cultural and community organizing together.

First, metrics. Organizers are driven by metrics. They want change now. They want it yesterday. They don't want to wait for a long time. 

Artists have a different approach to assessing their impact, . more of a qualitative than quantitative assessment, around timeframe. Artists' timeframe are much different than organizers' timeframe because they're trying to get a culture shift and narrative change. Hank Willis Thomas said to me that he thinks about it in 10, 20, 30, 40 year spans of time. 

There is a third important component, which is messaging. Labor unions and community organizations  want to be clear about what their message is, and they do a lot of polling to figure out how they should present their case. Artists have a different approach. They don't want to feel like their work is prescribed by an organization and they feel like they have something to contribute that's different than the polling. A different way to think about these things, and it's a way that touches our hearts and souls, not just our mind. So we need to find a way to reconcile those differences on messaging, on metrics and on timeframe.

Andrew Friedman: You talked about a model where artists are organizing other artists, artists in service of a movement, either as multipliers or trying to help articulate a powerful message to a broader audience. You talked about artists almost embedded in a campaign. Obviously, the campaign that you talked about, the environmental work is an example of that.

But could you say a little bit more about in some ways, maybe an example of different types of collaboration to animate this? 

Ken Grossinger: One particular story is about a collaboration between an artist and a housing organizer. The housing organizer's name was Carol Ott. The artist was Justin Nethercut. This is in Baltimore. Justin said that he was tired of looking at the blighted buildings, rows and rows and rows of dilapidated housing. He wanted to do something to remedy it and to call to account people that are responsible. He wanted to amass a team of 15 artists and create murals on the sides of these buildings to draw attention to them. You could see them from the Amtrak line between Washington DC and New York.

And I said to him, "It's great to call attention to these things, but that's not really going to change anything." And he says, "Yeah, but." And the "Yeah, but," was that he was working with the housing organizer. He identified who the slumlords were and what political districts these homes were in. And on the QR code on the murals, when you scanned it, brought you to a website and up popped the name of the slumlord. For the first of the 15, Justin, Stefan Ways was the artist andpainted this huge picture of a raven with a beak. The QR code was right next to the beak. Two days after the mural and QR code went up, the QR code was ripped down, but the mural was left alone. And so Justin went back and pasted it back up on the wall.

And if you can imagine what it's like to get a demolition license in a city like Baltimore, that building was destroyed within two weeks. It had come down because the landlord, the slumlord, was embarrassed. This played itself out in not all of the 15 murals, but several of them. In the fifth mural that went up, an artist named Gaia created a mural of Pharaoh wearing a golden headdress. But instead of looking out over Egypt, he was looking out over cotton plantations. And in Hebrew along the bottom, the word Exile was written.

What happened to this one is the person who owned that building went to the Baltimore Sun, the primary paper in Baltimore, and said, "This is hate speech. This is the idea of Jews keeping down Blacks in the ghetto. And moreover, I don't own this building." It was a full-page hatchet job. But the Baltimore Weekly, the progressive newspaper, called Justin upand they said, "Wwould you mind if we called the Baltimore Sun directly and ask them some basic questions? Like, are you reporting what the landlord said or did you research it?" 

And in fact, there was a corporate veil and all the evidence pointed to this slumlord who owned the building, who had also been cited over 500 times for lead paint in different buildings that he owned. And so at the end of the summer the mayor of Baltimore increased the demolition and renovation budget from $2.2 million to $20-plus million dollars. This is an example of where art had a direct impact. And it could not have happened without the housing organizer. And the housing organizer never could have drawn that kind of attention if not for the artists. 

Andrew Friedman: One of the other storieswas about NDLON (the National Day Laborer Organizing Network), the work that they did in Arizona. Could share a little bit about those efforts? 

Ken Grossinger: Yeah, I think what I'd like to do to answer that question is read two paragraphs of the book.

Andrew Friedman: I love it.

Ken Grossinger: Because NDLON uses art in very significant ways. And I asked the director and founder of NDLON, Pablo Alvarado, why? And he said the following,

What happens is when you're a worker and your wages are stolen, you're mistreated. When you're an immigrant and you don't have papers, just the fact that not having documents puts you in a vulnerable position, not just in front of society, but within yourself. You don't feel that you fit. You feel that you are a burden. You feel that you are an outsider all the time.

So in order to organize and to make sure that people defend themselves when they are subjected to oppression, to difficult situations, you have to elevate the self-esteem. You have to build a cultural identity that people feel they belong to because when you have that, when you have a strong cultural root, cultural background and identity, it's very difficult for an employer to come and rob you of your wages. To us, using arts and culture is a matter of building that kind of power. You cannot build real power unless people have an incredible sense of self-regard, self-love. This is why we incorporate art.

After that, I don't have anything more I need to expound upon because I really think that's really the heart of it.

Andrew Friedman: Drop the mic, Pablo. You cover a ton of ground in the book and history from SNCC, to the Black Arts Movement, to Afro-Futurism, the environmental struggle, domestic worker organizing. 

You talk about the role of art in terms of raising spirits of folks doing organizing, giving people strength to journey on. You talk about artists raising money to just pay the bills on long-term organizing fights and campaigns. 

You talk about arts as a spark to motivate people or to activate people around certain fights. You talk about the value of art in healing from trauma and paying tribute to folks who made meaningful contributions to fights. You talk about art and artists as force multipliers or ways to scale up fights and get attention that sometimes organizers couldn't get themselves. You talk about artists almost being a first line of defense sometimes in certain settings. 

One of the things I wanted to invite you to talk about was the use of satire and humor in political fights. 

Ken Grossinger: Caty Borum Chattoohas been laboring these fields for a long time. She wrote three books that so comprehensively discuss this topic. Al you have to think of is John Oliver and the impact of John Oliver's satire on TV and his capacity to reach millions of people that way.

Or John Stewart. These guys, and now a lot of women and people of color –  increasingly the hip-hop caucus just began to embrace comedy and satire as a way to get their messages out. I think this is important because it penetrates the media. When you have an opportunity to reach the audience that you can reach through like a John Oliver or John Stewart, that's not an opportunity to pass off.

And it's another way in which it reaches our hearts, but it also reaches our minds. That's part of the brilliance of comedy and satire, it penetrates the heart. I think Norman Lear said that the power of All in the Family was that we all see ourselves in one of the characters. And I was blown away when he told me that, but it made a lot of sense. So tapping a rational view with what is heartfelt, and comedy and satire does that. And I would commend Caty's books to The Forge readership because they're really very good.

Andrew Friedman: Ken, you've been an organizer for a long time, and you've also been a philanthropist. You spent some time in the book talking about the role of philanthropy in supporting this type of collaborative work. I would love to hear a little bit about your vision, what that partnership should look like in the future or moving forward?

Ken Grossinger: I'm glad we're starting with the future because we all know about the past. We all know the history of cultural philanthropy dominated by White men who invested most of their money in elite institutions, and in defining what art is. What we're seeing increasingly is philanthropy that's going to the impacted group of people they want to fund and to ask their advice about where their money ought to be put. A great example of that is the Art for Justice Fund.

I'll share another story about a philanthropist named Agnes Gund. She was the head of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has a long history as a philanthropist, funding individual artists. And one day she saw Ava DuVernay's film 13th, which traces the Atlantic slave trade right up through mass incarceration. And was blown away by it. In 1962, I think it was, Agnes Gund bought one of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings called the Masterpiece. She sells the Roy Lichtenstein painting for $160 million and takes $100 million of that to invest in the Art for Justice Fund to end mass incarceration.

And what they did is they tapped the families of those who were incarcerated and they incarcerated themselves to ask who ought to be receiving the money? 30% of the money that they gave away, they've now spent down, they just closed out this summer. Went to the incarcerated, or families of the incarcerated. A significant portion of the other dollars went to places that they had advised on. And so that's one example.

Some people know Favianna Rodriguez from the Center for Cultural Power in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Oakland. Her office is in Oakland. The decisions were made by people in the community. They had selected peoples in the community, and they set out a goal of raising $23 million for that purpose. And so what we're seeing are movements afoot like that.

Elizabeth Alexander has just defined the Mellon Foundation recently as a social justice foundation. They were never defined that way before, and it was all about the arts. So we're seeing movement, not fast enough, not deep enough, but movement in that direction. And in part, this is happening because organizers are telling foundations, "We can't do our work unless we can tell our story. And we can't tell our story without art and culture, you need to fund art and culture." 


Created with Sketch.

Related Articles