Many artists want to create work that has a social impact. Unfortunately, organizing a successful social-change campaign isn’t often part of an artist’s education. The Art Action Academy (AAA) is a weekend training to help socially-engaged artists make their work more impactful and better evaluate the effect of their work.
Building upon the success of the School for Creative Activism, in which community organizers are trained in cultural tactics and creative strategies, the Art Action Academy flips this model on its head, reorienting the workshops toward artists. Instead of training grassroots change-makers to become more creative, the AAA train socially engaged artists to become more effective change-makers.

The goal of the AAA is not merely to impart knowledge, but to access, organize and operationalize the creative, cultural and political resources possessed by the artists themselves. In brief, the goal of the AAA is to have participants own the method so that they can continue to develop as successful artists and effective activists.

The Curriculum

We approach the goal of political efficacy from the artists’ perspective and though a curriculum designed around their specific needs and goals. The curriculum of the Art Action Academy incorporates a range of formats, from lectures by the directors, to exercises undertake by the participants singularly and in small groups, to a final “exam” engaging the entire group.

Areas covered include:

  1. Idea: Why aesthetics and creativity are essential tools for effective organizing in the new millennium, and how the arts can be effectively applied to bring about change.
  2. Practice: Using contemporary examples of artistic activism, we study how art has been employed to raise awareness, build organizations, influence legislature, and even draft policy.
  3. History: Re-framing the spectacle of the Boston Tea Party to the “strategic dramaturgy” of the Civil Rights movement to the media-savvy of ACT-UP, this unit addresses what we can learn from creatively effective social movements.
  4. Theory: Everything from basic organizing strategy to social marketing, cognitive science, and the latest French aesthetic theory, presented in a way that is clear to understand and immediately applicable.
  5. Skill Share: Participants give brief lessons. What skills and experiences – cultural and professional – do people bring to the table? How can these skills, particularly those not usually considered political, be reconceptualized and mobilized for organizing? This aspect of the curriculum is critical for both mutual education and creating a sense of buy-in and ownership.
  6. Mapping: Using goal setting strategies a, participants work in small groups to create a visual map of a campaign, incorporating three different paths – known, utopian, artistic.
  7. Tests: Every school has tests, and the AAA is no exception. The “Tests” in the AAA are scenarios – real-life ones brought in by participants, vetted and selected by the directors – in which we collectively brainstorm artistic campaigns in actual situations.
  8. Evaluation: Application of appropriate methods and scales to evaluate the efficacy of artistic campaigns. This includes simple metrics like increased participation in actions, media coverage of campaigns, and discernable impact on campaign objectives. But we also stress the importance of recognizing the less immediately discernable: from increased flexibility in tactical thinking and improvements in organizer morale to transformations in public consciousness and cementing political gains through cultural “normalization.”P1080796
  9. Backreach: Techniques of cultivating the ideas and practices of artistic activism back home; introducing new principles and techniques to often change averse cultural institutions
  10. Creative Play: Walking the walk. The training includes time for in-depth conversation among participants and a group outing to a cultural event — part demonstration of links between art and politics, part bonding mechanism, part pure fun.

The Arts Action Academy was inaugurated in the Fall of 2012 with a visit to the I-School, a New York City public high school. There, AAA led a class of teenaged art-students through an introduction to creative activism in history, and shared current examples of art that works politically. After considering the real-world politics that they would like to influence, students developed their own creative activist projects in later classes. The AAA returned to to lead students in an ‘artivist’ critique – a traditional practice honed in art schools and adapted for the constructive criticism and support of creative projects designed  to bring about social change.

“Thank you so much for visiting iSchool and presenting such inspiring stuff! My students were so excited about the material. When I asked them about it the next day, I could tell you really made an impression. They remembered everything, and that is definitely not always the case! They also thought you guys were really “chill” and that you seemed to really enjoy what you were doing. They were impressed that you had actually lived a lot of the experiences you shared with us. I think they are very excited to try their own ideas now!”

–Gretel Smith, New York City I-School teacher

Since these first workshops, the AAA has gone on to offer trainings with MFA students at Portland State University’s famed Art and Social Practice program, activist artists St.Petersburg, Russia, and local artists at the Queens Museum in New York City.

In the Fall of 2016, over seven weeks, the C4AA led an Arts Action Academy with local artists at the Queens Museum. Our final, collaborative, project took place in Queens, New York the most ethnically diverse community in the world, and birthplace of Donald Trump, a week after Trump was elected president of the US. Here is a taste:

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