5 Best Practices for Launching Your Socially Engaged Art Campaign

Working with several advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, the Center for Artistic Activism took over the controversial sculpture “Perceiving Freedom” in Cape Town. Photo by Steve Lambert.

Working with several advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, the Center for Artistic Activism took over the controversial sculpture “Perceiving Freedom” in Cape Town. Photo by Steve Lambert.

Interested in launching a socially engaged art campaign? Curious how successful artists have pulled it off? Stephanie Bleyer is an expert in community engagement campaigns and founder of the firm Six Foot Chipmunk, where she helps artists across disciplines create strategic plans, raise funds, and reach and mobilize new audiences. On Thursday June 9th, 2016, she will lead the webinar Producing & Funding Your Community Engagement Campaign, an essential for artists’ projects involving social justice, education, public art, or community building. Adapted from Stephanie’s webinar, the following information pairs best practices with action-oriented case studies.

1. Utilize Both Online and Offline Media

Go beyond social media. In our Facebook-and-Twitter-consumed world, it’s easy to rely on online platforms as the cornerstone of your campaign. Yet the most successful projects encourage both online and offline engagement, as well as an exchange between the two.

How They Did It
When tax cuts threatened to shut down a library in Troy, Michigan, the Troy Public Library (TPL)—masquerading as an organization called Safeguarding American Families—launched a campaign advertising a book burning party. They printed out signs, placing them in lawns all over the neighborhood. They also started a Facebook page and Twitter account (@BookBurninParty) likewise advocating for book burning, Fahrenheit 451 style. Understandably, citizens were enraged. People began leaving messages like “you people are sick” and “cheap imbeciles” on their social media page. Ultimately, Troy Public Library revealed its true message, declaring “a vote against the library is like a vote to burn books.” In the upcoming election, citizens of Troy voted to raise taxes, and thereby safeguard the library, by a landslide. By utilizing both online and offline media, the campaign successfully changed the conversation from one about politics—raising taxes—to one about the cause—promoting literacy.

2. Identify a Very Specific Target Audience

Often when asked to identify a target audience for their project, artists intuitively reply that their work is intended for everyone. Yet the more specific you can get the better. This will enable you to more effectively engage the gatekeepers in your field, quantify your reach, and measure impact. For more on formulating a targeted marketed strategy, see our blog post by Ruby Lerner.

How They Did It
Sundance award-winning documentary American Promise premiered in 2013 with the purpose of empowering boys, their parents, caregivers, and educators to help close the black male achievement gap. To work towards this goal, the trans-media project targeted the parents of black boys who lived in middle income urban communities.

 3. Start Fundraising (& Partnering) Early

Just about to release your campaign? It’s too late to start fundraising. Fundraising takes a long time. And when you do embark on this process, you must reach beyond the usual foundations that typically fund art projects. Try thinking in terms of your cause (i.e. climate change, black male achievement, etc.) rather than your discipline (i.e. visual art).

How They Did It
American Promise
started fundraising for their project 13 years in advance. While this is an extreme example, an ample amount of forethought prepared them to effectively tell their story in multiple platforms, tailoring the content for each. This advanced planning also enabled American Promise to develop an impressive list of supporting partners, the cornerstone to any social engagement campaign. Another project, No Impact Man partnered with the Huffington Post, going beyond the obvious contenders (i.e., the Sierra Club) to engage a wider audience.

4. Use Videos

Videos can be a great way to tell your story. They are particularly effective when they integrate a call-to-action, are displayed in an unlikely venue, and target a specific audience. 

How They Did It
Creative Capital funded project Digital Farm Collective was created by fourth-generation farmer Matthew Moore in response to climate change. The project uses time-lapse videos, or ‘lifecycles,’ to document the agricultural process, reconnecting people to food growth cycles and bridging the gap between farmers and producers.

5. Employ Emotions, Not Petitions

People make decisions based on emotions. In our recent workshop “Artistic Activism: Making Art Work,” co-founders of the Center of Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, asked a group of 30 socially engaged artists how they became champions of their cause: “Who here did it because someone asked them to sign a petition?” No one raised their hand. “Because of a Facebook post they saw?” they continued. Silence. Instead, almost everyone in the room said they came to care about a cause through a personal experience or emotional interaction. The facts and justifications come later. The workshop leaders asked, if Tweets, pamphlets, and lectures didn’t make you care about a cause, why are you engaging your audience that way?

The good news is that artists are excellent at storytelling, at engaging audiences through surprise, strangeness, and ingenuity. Use these skills to capture people in inventive and compelling ways. This social outreach can be an extension of your artistic practice, and just as creative.

How They Did It
The No Impact Project chronicled one man’s experiment living a zero-waste lifestyle in New York City. In efforts to leave no carbon footprint for a year, Colin Beavan, or No Impact Man, avoided elevators, cars, and electricity. To engage others, the campaign invites audiences to try it themselves for a week. This next-step gives audience members a concrete, tangible point of entry. It enables viewers to be the protagonist of the cause—organically involving them in the experience, rather than asking them to sign a petition or share a Facebook post. To learn more about how emotions inform decision-making, Duncombe and Lambert recommend The Unpersuadeables by Will Storr, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation by Drew Westen.

Learn more best practices from Stephanie Bleyer during our upcoming webinar, Producing & Funding Your Community Engagement Campaign on Thursday, June 9 from 7:00pm—8:30 pm.

Register Now

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This entry was posted in TIPS & TOOLS: Resources for Artists and tagged , , , , , , by Kelly Olshan. Bookmark the permalink.
Kelly Olshan

About Kelly Olshan

Kelly Olshan is an M.A. Candidate at Columbia University studying Arts Administration, and the current Professional Development Program Intern at Creative Capital. She graduated Valedictorian from UNC Asheville, where she received her BFA in Painting and a minor in business management. As both an arts administrator and practicing visual artist, Kelly owns and manages her own fine art business, Kelly Olshan Fine Art. Before enrolling in the Arts Administration program, she served as the Local Arts Advancement intern for Americans for the Arts. She is currently writing her master’s thesis on NYC-based professional development programs for artists. After graduation, she is invested in establishing more fiscal and educational resources for contemporary artists.

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