Artists Get A Political Leg Up

A new political boot camp is recruiting artists to run for office, with an emphasis on women and people of color. With three weeks to go until deadline, it is asking artists in cities like New Haven to apply, and spread the word.

That’s the story for the Artist Campaign School, a new nonpartisan “candidate-training boot-camp” for artists and arts administrators who are thinking of running for local, state and national office. Like the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, it targets a group that hasn’t historically held political office, but can have immense political sway in elections. With a similar model, it seeks to reach a wider creative community, where politics, craftsmanship, and pressing questions about the arts in government and education collide. 

After announcing its first annual conference earlier this month, the school is taking applications through September 15. The conference will then be held October 26–28 in Detroit, Mich. The endeavor is powered by national arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas with support from Alternate Roots, Art Up, Creative Capital, Creative Many, For Freedoms, The Laundromat Project, and National Performance Network

“Artists are exactly the kinds of people we need to run for office,” wrote Lauren Ruffin, Fractured Atlas’ vice president of external relations, in an initial press release for the event. “Being an artist is all about creative problem solving, innovation, and collaboration—perfect skills for making change in local communities. When artists see something wrong in the world, they want to get involved and fix it. But when that something is politics, it's hard to figure out where to begin. 

It’s especially timely right now, Ruffin said in a follow-up call with The Arts Paper. As national politics grow increasingly partisan and divisive, artists find themselves in a unique position — strapped for funding, interested in advocating for themselves and their peers, but not always equipped with the skills to be effective moderators. 

That’s where the school, which is currently free to attend, comes in. To galvanize creatives, Ruffin and her colleagues are focusing on the basics of running a political campaign, “whether it’s for school board or Senate.” Over two days, artists will get a crash course in fundraising, branding and messaging, and the science of reaching different constituent bases. 

“It really is a deep dive over a period of about 36 hours,” she added. Sessions will respond to “issues that concern artists generally, not just the things that concern Democrats or Republicans or Democratic Socialists or anything else.” Organizers’ fingers are on the pulse of what that means: during the application process, the Artist Campaign School has asked artists to fill out a survey on the issues that are politically most important to them. So far, those have included healthcare, arts funding, education and immigration. 

Participants will also zero in on what it may take to win areas that have historically swung red or blue, receiving one-on-one consultations on what their districts look and vote like. Because the program is nonpartisan, Ruffin said she is hoping that artists of all political stripes apply before the deadline.

“I miss that robust dialogue that didn’t start with abortion and Donald Trump” she said. “I hope that those conservative artists come out of the woodwork. To have that sort of conversation — if for no other reason … because folks have to learn to navigate hotbed topics. I think we are increasingly siloed. And that gets hard when you’re talking about people’s lives.” 

“We don’t want a cohort where it becomes an echo chamber,” she added. 

In the next two weeks, Artist Campaign School organizers will also be addressing an ongoing need for the Detroit meeting: a more diverse applicant pool. Of the almost 60 applications that the program has already received, Ruffin said that the bulk of them “have skewed white and female.” In the next two weeks, she and other Fractured Atlas representatives — as well as those from partner organizations — will be hunkering down in southern states, focusing on applicants of color who may not have heard about the opportunity. 

With participating partner organizations in Atlanta, Memphis, Detroit, D.C., New York and New Orleans, Ruffin said she remains optimistic about having a diverse group in attendance (she herself heads to Memphis this week). She encouraged artists to spread the word through their networks, like those that exist in New Haven’s majority-minority communities.

If they can get there, she said, she envisions a rich and successful first convening. She recalled a meeting with Ryan Dorsey, an artist who ran successfully last year for Baltimore city council. After a similar training, he’d told her that “he went from being an artist who always thought he would run for office to being someone who knew exactly what he needed to do to run for office and win.” That’s the ultimate goal of the Campaign School, too.

“The idea that you’re able to take 36 hours with folks and get some training and support to coalesce, to make that transition from someone who is thinking about running for office to knowing exactly what they need to do to run, that’s what we want.”

The Artist Campaign School is taking applications from artists and arts administrators who intend to run for political office through September 15. For more information and to apply, visit its website or find it on Facebook.