A New School Trains Artists to Be Politicians


Caricature of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (photo by Ted Eytan via Flickr)

It’s time for artists to take the electoral wheel. Since the presidential election of 2016, tens of millions of residents and citizens have come close to losing the Affordable Care Act, which would have led to loss of care, bankruptcy, and for some, death. The slow undermining of our democracy can be perceived, for instance, in the range of policies that affect travel for non-citizens, threaten the lives of transgender people and undocumented immigrants, and abandon federal oversight of police departments who have been shown to routinely violate citizens’ civil rights. The list goes on. 

The almost daily privations doled out by an unapologetically misogynist, racist, and xenophobic administration have mobilized members of the arts community into action. The national organization Fractured Atlas has now stepped into the fray with a new initiative, the Artist Campaign School, which looks to train artists in the practical skills necessary to successfully run for elected office. I spoke with the vice president of External Relations, Lauren Ruffin, about the project, which hopes to further the Fractured Atlas’s mission to empower “artists, arts organizations, and other cultural sector stakeholders by eliminating practical barriers to artistic expression.”

The idea for the school came about after Fractured Atlas sent out its annual member survey and found that 19% of respondents have thought about running for political office. Ruffin, who has a background in lobbying and running political campaigns, had already thought that a project should be formed to train artists in political tradecraft following the election, and the survey returns gave her the data to support the effort.

Lauren Ruffin (photo by Nicola Carpenter)

She thinks the project can be successful, at least partly because there are several people active in the arts who have run or are now running for office. She cited Nikkita Oliver, who is currently a candidate for the mayoralty of Seattle, Ingrid LaFleur, who is running to be the mayor of Detroit, and Ryan Dorsey, who’s working to be elected to the Baltimore City Council. Ruffin likewise hopes that the Artist Campaign School will surface those political candidates who work in the arts but don’t publicly identify as artists. As she said, “Art is a fabric in our lives that we have not ever really coalesced around politically.”

Another reason that artists may make successful candidates, Ruffin argues, is that “there’s a lot of money in politics, there always has been and there always will be money in politics.” She continued, “We have to help artists who frequently have access to wealth, who have wealthy patrons, to turn that access to political change.” I don’t entirely agree with this. This is a neoliberal position that seems to give up on the notion of separating out commerce and capitalism from civic life, but I realize while speaking to Ruffin that the idea of public life divorced from the profit motive is so starved for oxygen, most assume the notion is already dead.

Fractured Atlas aims to recruit and train artists by relying heavily on their partners, who include Alternate Roots, National Performance Network, The Laundromat Project, Creative Many, Creative Capital, Art Up, and For Freedoms. These collaborators should help identify artists and arts administrators who have already been deeply involved in politics and advocacy, nominate artists for the program, and screen applications. Ruffin says that they plan to “[reach] out to artists and arts administrators from around the country and across all disciplines, with a particular interest in Southern states, and cities that are relying heavily on the artistic community to spur redevelopment, such as Baltimore and Detroit.”

The Artist Campaign School wants candidates to run for political office at anywhere from local school boards to zoning councils and city councils, to the statehouse and even county sheriff — any position that allows the officeholder to help determine the policies that will impact the lives of the residents of a city or district. Artists new to the retail political arena will be trained in skills such as targeting voters, message development, media interaction, fundraising, developing a campaign online presence, scheduling, and staffing. Ruffin also adds that there will be no political litmus test for participants: “While our data suggests that many artists and administrators are left of center and/or independent, this training is tactical, not political or partisan, in nature. Candidates are welcome to attend regardless of party identification.”

The project launched early August with minimal fanfare, posting a blog post about the school on the Fractured Atlas site. But this is more than a hopeful project; it is a refreshingly mature and practical one. As Ruffin told me, “You can only protest for so long. At some point you have to plant your flag in the ground and actually begin to hammer out legislation, hammer out policies that create the change you want.” The Artist Campaign School looks to take that next step.

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