Within weeks of the the 2016 presidential election, a massive controversy erupted around a billboard. Artist Hank Willis Thomas paired Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” with a picture of police attacking black protesters in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday and posted it on Highway 80 along the Freedom Riders route through the segregated South. People weren't sure what to make of it: was it pro-Trump and overtly racist, or dark and satirical? Brad Rogers, mayor of the town the billboard was posted in, Pearl, Mississippi, covered it up, raising questions about free speech.
Since then Thomas and artist activist organization For Freedoms, known for running a super PAC of the same name, have spearheaded a tireless campaign of billboards and art shows designed to provoke questions, inspire people to think more deeply and even upset people. The political action group's goal is to encourage participation in government through art and creative communication and have funded shows, town halls, and billboards to spark dialogue between creative people all over the country.
Today, For Freedoms and Kickstarter are announcing The 50 State Initiative, a collaborative effort to run 52 simultaneous crowdfunding campaigns—one in each state, along with Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico—to purchase billboard space for artists to spark local conversation. “Billboards are one of the most passive yet impactful forms of communication,” Thomas tells VICE.
Thomas has been occupied with the power of advertising for years. As an artist, he has used the language of logos and corporate slogans to comment on race relations and violence toward women. He draws inspiration in part from the long history of artists using billboards in their work, from Guerrilla Girls to John Baldessari and Félix Gonzaléz-Torres. He says The 50 State Initiative builds on this history by asking the questions: “How can images and public space be used other than to sell products? What is the role of art in civic space?"
Along with Thomas, a small army of A-list artists have pledged their work to the cause: Dread Scott, Marilyn Minter, Tania Bruguera, Zoë Buckman, Paula Crown, Sam Durant, Theaster Gates, Rashid Johnson, Richard Misrach, Trevor Paglen, Nari Ward, Carrie Mae Weems and more. Over 200 local cultural institutions are working with For Freedoms and Kickstarter to support the crowdfunding and installation process. Each of the 52 campaigns has a goal of $3,000, and any extra money will go to town halls, gallery shows for local artists, and more billboards. If successful, The 50 State Initiative will be the largest collaborative public art campaign in American history.