10 Ways Artists Can Take Action to Create Change
If there’s one good thing that’s come from the elections, it’s this:
We’re all awake now.
And we know that it’s time for things to change.
Complacency isn’t an option. We can’t get comfortable, no matter what our social status, gender, skin color, or income can provide.
But even though we’ve begun to recognize even more faults in our society that need to be reconciled, it’s difficult to figure out what should happen next.
For the last week I’ve been trying to think of ways individuals can create change, either with art or otherwise. So I’ve pulled together a list of 10 ways artists can take action.
If you’re like me and want to find ways to use your creativity to make a difference, I hope this helps inspire you to get started!
1. Make work about issues that matter to you
This one is simple.
In fact, I’d even say it’s at the basis of most great art.
Sure, some artists choose to explore issues that seem to be little more socially relevant than others. Some artists make it very apparent that their work is about a certain problem that they want to bring attention to, while others keep the meaning of their work pretty subtle.
But no matter how simple or complex the subject matter; whether it’s personal, political, social, or emotional; regardless of the medium or method of delivery; great artists make art about the things they care about.
If you’re new to your creative practice, this might be easier said than done. When you’re still developing skills, it’s difficult to look past the technical process. In my experience, making art about an idea I care about, even when I’m learning new tools or skills simultaneously, encourages me to work harder.
Nothing has to be perfect, especially at the beginning of a new project. Take the time to learn, form new ideas, and explore subject matter that’s important to you will make the creative act even more fulfilling.
2. Invite non-artists to get involved
This is something I tend to incorporate into my own creative projects.
But as a portrait photographer, it’s probably easier for me than for those working in other mediums, with different subjects.
However, if it makes sense for your art, I absolutely recommend it.
Truthfully, I’ve learned so much from photographing people that don’t consider themselves artists. Spending time with them and collaborating to make an image opens both participants’ eyes to new ways of thinking.
But that’s the key: for this to work, it takes collaboration.
You, the artist, must be willing to give up some of your control in order learn from the people you work with. I know it can sound a little scary, but trust me, you and your work will be better for it.
And if you’re apprehensive to jump into some kind of collaboration during the making of your work, you can always wait until you’ve come to a stopping point and merely ask for feedback before moving forward.
I suggest coming up with a few easy questions that can prompt a discussion, like:
• Does this piece make sense to you?
• Do you think this artwork gets to the ideas I’m trying talk about?
• What’s your initial reaction to this body of work?
It’s easy get wrapped up in our own little artist communities, and when we get our work in front of someone that isn’t so like-minded, they’re not sure what to make of it. But if someone who doesn’t consider themselves a “creative” can understand what you’re trying to convey, then you’ve just built a bridge that can help your message and ideas travel further.
3. Develop platforms that elevate others’ experiences
Many of us (artists) have spent years honing in our skills. We’ve become expert communicators through our medium of choice.
And once you’ve developed and refined your own creative practice, you’re capable of commanding attention through art.
But before you try and start shaking up the world, you might want to take a moment and listen.
This is especially important if you’re making work about social issues.
Are there people in your community that need a voice?
Are there important lived experiences that are going unnoticed?
Take, for example, Dry Noise, a zine that a few friends of mine began in our hometown, Yuma. There are lots of talented, creative people there, but there aren’t many opportunities to exhibit writing and art, or talk about Yuma’s music scene. So each month, Trina and Mat open up a call for work where local creatives submit writing and art. Then they promote and sell the zine online and throughout Arizona to show how talented people are in their community.
And here’s another example: when I was working on my Young Mothers project, I realized that no matter how hard I tried to reinterpret the diverse experiences of the women I photographed, it was their voice that needed to take precedence. So I ended up interviewing twelve of the 17 mothers I worked with, and recorded our conversation. During the exhibition, their voices were heard alongside the photographs I took, and now both elements have been combined in video form.
Sometimes the best, most honest story is one that you can’t tell on your own. So consider seeking out other people, and then using your creative skills to bring attention to their voice.
4. Teach your creative skills to others in the community
Have you ever had the opportunity to teach?
No matter how big or small your role is, teaching can be a life changing experience.
Volunteering to teach art is a way for you to make an impact on someone’s life almost immediately.
Think about it…
Can you remember the first time you realized that you fully understood the significance of art in your life? What about when you finally accepted that it was more than just a childish hobby, or you could admit to yourself that you were a real-life artist, and it wasn’t some intangible status you could never achieve.
Well, lots of people don’t get to experience that…Especially the ones that need it most.
Fortunately, there are programs and organizations that work really hard to provide creative outlets to those who are underserved in the community, but they need artistically inclined people to help.
One that comes immediately to mind is Free Arts Arizona, an incredible organization that is devoted to bringing therapeutic opportunities for creative expression to children that have experienced homelessness or abuse.
But you don’t always need to work with an organization. Maybe you already know someone that could use more art in their life. Perhaps your neighbor’s kid has lots of creative energy and needs some mentoring to realize their full potential. There are lots of ways you can share your knowledge to help make this world a better place.
5. Volunteer your talents & skills
As an artist, you’ve probably spent hundreds or thousands of hours practicing and developing an important set of skills.
And though I don’t typically encourage artists to work for free, making the conscious decision to volunteer your talents for a worthy cause is a different story.
Do you write, illustrate, or paint? Are you a photographer, videographer, or sculptor?
There are lots of opportunities to apply your creativity to help out your community.
You might not end up creating works of art for them, but many organizations, nonprofits, and advocacy groups can greatly benefit from your unique skill-set. Artists can raise awareness for their cause, help organize events and activities, assist with projects, and a lot more.
Even if you don’t see “artist” listed under their volunteer opportunities, don’t be afraid to reach out and specifically offer your expertise. If they don’t have a position for your at the moment, there might be some way you can contribute to a future project of theirs.
6. Use your work to prompt conversations with others
Remember when we talked about making work that you care about? Well, if you want to create change with your art, you have to get it out there and share it with others, both like-minded and otherwise.
You also need to be willing to talk about it and explain yourself. Not everyone’s going to “get it” right of the bat. Take the time to educate others about your reasons for making the work. Share what influenced or inspired you to pursue your project. Explain your research and process. Be willing to answer questions, no matter how straightforward or complex.
On top of that, you might want to find creative ways to get your work in front of people. The general population doesn’t frequent galleries and art spaces, so if you want to introduce your work to non-artists, you’ll need to think about how to reach them.
One of the most inspiring examples I’ve seen of this is by photographer, Melissa Kreider. Her work, Remnants, documents the experiences of sexual and domestic abuse survivors, from photographs of the victims to the backlog of cases that have gone untouched.
Not only is she exposing a critical problem, but she’s taken it a step further, by launching a Kickstarter to get this body of work in front of the people that can make a difference:
“ Remnants is a book designed to educate members of Congress about the urgent need for funding allocated toward Rape Kit DNA Testing. It is my hope that Remnants will inform and incite an emotional response in those with the positions of power to enact change and promote education. Using a linear narrative opening with real, transcribed 911 calls, the book chronicles the landscapes and often personal objects left behind in the wake of sexual or domestic assault.”
Sharing your work adds another step to your creative practice, but you won’t be making much of an impact if you put it into storage.
7. Raise money and awareness for organizations
This is something I’m working on right now, and so are lots of artists. For me, it’s a way to do some good with the work that I’ve made in the past, instead of just letting it live on my website.
However, there are ways to raise more money, more effectively, for organizations that matter to you.
For example, I’m selling my work independently, and donating money to various organizations. But working hand-in-hand with a single non-profit from the start would help you better understand their needs. Then, you can price your work accordingly, organize a campaign around your project, and focus on appealing to a target audience of buyers.
There are lots of ways to make this work depending on the amount of money you want to raise, your experience, and access to resources. Charity events, art auctions, or selling a book/zine are just a few ways artists can raise money. But of course, this could end up taking a chunk of money from your own pocket to pay for supplies, so you’ll need to take that into consideration.
8. Exhibit your work publicly, or in unexpected places
Sometimes the most impactful art is that which takes you by surprise.
Plus, exhibiting your work publicly pretty much guarantees that your work will get seen.
Even though we don’t all have the resumes and experience to be commissioned to make a permanent public installation, there are other ways for your work to live outside of gallery walls.
Murals, temporary installations, pop-up galleries, and performance art can all be brought to the streets and into public view.
If a mural is too big of an undertaking for you to do on your own, there are mural arts programs all across the country that depend on dedicated groups of volunteers to complete a project. If you can’t find a building-owner or community space willing to host your art permanently, alternatives like wheatpaste posters allow for plenty of creative control, without causing lasting damage. If you’re a performer, you can go beyond your comfort zone and impact people’s daily routine outside of the stage or studio.
Remember, this isn’t about size of scale. Something as simple as leaving a small drawing or piece of poetry for a stranger to find can make a big impact.
Make it as personal or as magnificent as you’d like. But just get it out there.
Here are a few resources to find inspiration:
• Explore the work of the Guerrilla Girls
9. Incorporate social engagement into your creative practice
Socially engaged art is an art movement that is more focused on producing experiences than staying within the confines of “traditional” art. If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of art, but interested learning more, I recommend Education for Socially Engaged Art by Pablo Helguera.
But here’s a quote from the book that really first captured my attention and helped me understand it:
“Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art-making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes it visible to other disciplines.”
I, for one, have never incorporated socially engaged practices into my own art. Instead, I’ve used it as a way to think about my own work differently. Researching social engagement helped me break out of a gallery/academia-oriented mindset. It made me think about audience and impact more critically.
So whether you’re interested in being “socially engaged” or not, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with this practice, at the very least.
Want to learn more? Here are some resources:
10. Make art to help yourself work through personal struggles
This whole post has been about creating societal change, but don’t forget that art is as much about you (if not more) than it is about other people.
Make art that make you feel satisfied and whole. Use it to better understand yourself and your personal experiences. And I speak from experience when I say: if you can achieve that, the rest will follow.
Have any other suggestions?
I hope this list helps inspire you to use art to make a difference. Let me know if you can think of any other ways artists can get involved! I’d love to continue this conversation or answer any questions you might have in the comments below!