Hank Willis Thomas views his artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, as a call to action. Like the New York artist’s traveling inflatable speech bubble, Truth Booth, which invited visitors to share their thoughts on camera, Thomas’ foray into the political process makes a bold statement. “Really no one should be quiet,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what political position you have, you should be using your voice and looking at other people’s voices.” Since its founding last year, For Freedoms has hosted exhibits, town halls and voter registration drives. It also released a series of controversial billboards. A Sept. 17 town hall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland kicks off a two-year partnership with the City Club of Cleveland focused around Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings with themes of speech, worship, fear and want. Prior to speaking at the panel this month, Thomas chats with us about art as activism, civic engagement and more.
Q:Why did you form the artist-run super PAC For Freedoms?
A: We are actually becoming political operatives in a quote-unquote “government-sanctioned” way. We are exploring what it means to be political activists. We see our role as artists as opening space for other artists as well as the public for political speech.
Q: How can artists be activists?
A: All artists are activists — it’s just whether or not they own up to it. You don’t have to have a specific agenda to be an artist. Art has always been political. All artists have the freedom of expression and freedom of speech. That’s something artists have to take accountability for.
Q: Why partner with the City Club?
A: City Club is a center for discourse. … There isn’t a specific outcome or view that we’re trying to promote as much as we are trying to highlight some of the diversity of opinions that emerge.
Q: Why is it important that these town halls reach both artists and the public?
A: A lot of people don’t feel like they need to be politically engaged, and we all pay the price. In democracy, everyone needs to be politically engaged. It’s really about recognizing their role or position as a necessity. … The more that you talk about the issue, the more it becomes relevant, urgent and necessary for people to do something about.
Q: One of the billboards had Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan over an image from the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march. What was the response to the billboards?
A: We saw people talking about what is art, what is the responsibility, what is appropriate, what is correct. There’s all these issues that came up as a part of the billboards, really rethinking history, what we can say about it and what we can do about it. Some people were offended, some people were inspired and everything in between.