A Brooklyn Museum Residency Marries Fine Art and Politics

A coalition of artists, academics, and organizers have created a new kind of exhibition, just in time for the midterms.

A billboard that reads "Facts ≠ Truths".
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

“So, have you heard about Eric and Hank making mischief at the museum?” Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, asks me on a recent afternoon over Zoom. She’s talking about the artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman (both also present on the Zoom), a duo spearheading a new kind of residency at the institution, which also happens to be a polling site.

Among the Kaws statues and Kehinde Wiley paintings in the museum lobby, there is currently a built-out newsroom not unlike the kind you’d see on MSNBC. Through November 6, as locals pass through the space to vote in this year’s midterm elections, For Freedoms, an art collective started by Thomas and Gottesman, will be using the a faux set as a site for talks, presentations, and performances by a host of artists and art-adjacent names—including the performance artist Cassils and the curators Rujeko Hockley and Jasmine Wahi.

But a traditional cable news network this is not. As Thomas, Gottesman, and Pasternak describe it, the “For Freedoms News” residency is a way for artists to be inserted into civic conversations concerning politics and unity.

“There isn’t a place where you can get video content or actually thoughtful, elevated conversation about what’s happening in the world through a fine art lens,” Thomas says.

A look at For Freedoms News’s setup at the Brooklyn Museum.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

“For Freedoms is all about increasing not only who engages in civic processes, but what is considered civic engagement,” Gottesman adds. “We’ve been thinking about how artists need to have a seat at every table: in politics, in business, in media. We were struck by the possibility that we could not only be the subject of the news, but we could also be the news.”

Pasternak says that, although this is an unorthodox approach to a residency, or even a performance art program for that matter, she was all in once For Freedoms brought the idea across her desk. “I said to Hank and Eric, if they’re gonna do anything really naughty, they shouldn’t tell the team and they should just go ahead and do it,” she says with a laugh. Still, she says seeing For Freedoms’s projects come to life has been “one of the most optimistic and joyous experiences I’ve had around American democracy over recent years.”

“It is heavy, every single day, to read the news, to watch the news, to follow social media,” she says. “There’s so much ugliness. These artists have said, Let’s bring decency, creativity, goodness, and kindness back into the Democratic process. Let’s make it fun—and let’s ask ourselves really hard questions.”

The idea of fun and joy being injected into midterm voting is certainly a novel idea—but this is a central focus of For Freedoms News. Additionally, Thomas stresses that FFN is strictly “anti partisan.”

“We find it very difficult in times like these to not fall into the left wing-right wing trap,” he says, “And the ways in which primaries are discussed in this current moment typically elevates issues that divide us. They do not ever seek common ground, or even seek the acknowledgement that we are struggling with reality.”

Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, Whose News (2022).

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

After election day, For Freedom News will be moving down to Miami just in time for Miami Art Week. The collective, which was founded in 2016, will be posted up at Untitled Art, an independent satellite fair, from November 29 to December 3. But that’s hardly the last place this trio envisions For Freedom News living.

“We’d like to be syndicated,” Thomas says, chuckling.

“And we’d love to have local news guests,” Gottesman pipes up. “There is an infrastructure of these museums across the country, and I feel like this could be a new way for museums to engage their communities.”

“We’ll see if they're brave enough!” Pasternak adds.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum