Aspen Ideas: Nationwide public art display not about protests

For Freedoms co-founder Hank Willis Thomas with artist Paula Crown at Aspen Ideas Fest on Monday.
Courtesy photo

What’s being billed as the largest public art campaign in U.S. history was born at the Aspen Institute two summers ago and now is taking shape through the artist-run nonprofit For Freedoms.

The group, aiming to inspire civic engagement and ease political tensions through art, is in the midst of an initiative to stage billboard art in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

For Freedoms co-founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman discussed the project Monday morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on a panel with For Freedoms member Paula Crown and political strategist Mark Skidmore. It was moderated by Aspen Institute board Chairman Jim Crown, who also is Paula’s husband.

Thomas recalled that the idea of For Freedoms — a play on Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech — came out of a conversation in the Kriesge Building on the Institute campus, as he and art collector Stefan Edlis and executives from Kickstarter discussed solutions to political division in the United States.

“Even though we don’t all necessarily agree on policy and politics, we do all agree that art has value and can change our minds and question our own opinions about things,” Thomas said. “So we’ve been working for the past few years to really create space for creative people.”

Thomas describes the organization as “anti-partisan.” It’s not anti-Trump. It’s not a protest group. At a town hall in Aspen on Sunday night, he noted, they heard ideas for pro-gun rights billboards, for instance, and gun control-related art. Participants put up lawn signs across the west side of the Institute campus calling for a wide range of political desires — each beginning with the prompts “Freedom To…” or “Freedom Of…” or “Freedom From…”

“I don’t think it has to be protest,” added Gottesman. “I think it just has to ask the bigger questions.”

For Freedoms has 52 Kickstarter campaigns running through July 3, aiming to fund billboard art across the U.S. Each statewide campaign has a fund-raising goal of $3,000.

The panel was billed “Can Art Save Democracy?”


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