With its Latest Grants, the Art for Justice Fund is Looking to Spark New Connections

Young person in the Performing Statistics summer advocacy intensive displays their message for the education system. Photo: Mark Strandquist

Young person in the Performing Statistics summer advocacy intensive displays their message for the education system. Photo: Mark Strandquist

Art as activism has received significant attention from philanthropy in recent years, as have efforts to reduce the U.S. prison population, including through parole and bail reform, prison education and reentry programs. The Art for Justice Fund attempts to address mass incarceration and its ramifications by backing activist art and criminal justice reform. A new funding opportunity for current grantees explores what can be accomplished when socially engaged artists and justice organizations team up.

Art for Justice is a time-limited, five-year fund launched in 2017 by banking heiress Agnes Gund, the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors with $100 million from Gund’s sale of Roy Lichtenstein's “Masterpiece.” It has since awarded $43 million to both activist art projects and justice system reform efforts, engaging with many regional groups, along with well-known organizations like MoMA and the Pulitzer Center. And it has not shied from backing grantees with ambitious goals, such as a successful 2018 ballot measure campaign to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions in Florida.

Last month, the fund launched a smaller but clutch initiative: the Activating Art and Advocacy grants. Nineteen grants are funding 11 projects involving 28 current grantees from cities across the country. Helena Huang, project director of Art for Justice, tells Inside Philanthropy that activism seeking to reform the legal system often takes place “in silos, with artists in one lane and policy advocates in another.” The new grants are intended to unite the fund’s grantees from these two sectors into cohesive partnerships, giving out $300,000, in total—with the possibility of an increase after evaluation.

When Artists and Advocates Meet

This funding opportunity was inspired, in part, by the grantees themselves. The Art for Justice Fund held a convening in 2018 so grantees from various fields could learn more about each other. Huang says the attendees “started seeking one another out for partnerships.”

For example, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is a New Orleans nonprofit made up of and serving previously incarcerated individuals and their communities. It focuses on voting rights, among other issues. After VOTE led other grantees on a tour of the Angola prison in Louisiana, playwright Liza Jessie Petersen decided to bring her award-winning one-woman play the “Peculiar Patriot,” which references Angola, to the prison to encourage dialogue and reflection among the men there.

“We launched [this] initiative to spark more of these organic connections,” Huang says. Other collaborations and projects include a mass incarceration quilt; an exhibit fusing poetry, printmaking and text from cash bail-centered lawsuits; narrative artworks by prosecutors; and an artist in residence program at the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney. And Friends of the High Line, the MASS Design Group and others are partnering on a project called “The Writing on the Wall.” It features creative writing, letters, illustrated narratives and more from individuals in prison around the world, along with guided walks and panel discussions. Writing on the Wall includes this reflection from an imprisoned person on his first day in a cell: “My hopes of being alone were soon dashed by the arrival of a younger companion, who was polite, exhausted and very afraid. For a moment, I regretted eating the sausage roll I had been issued. It seemed like it would have been the only gift I could have given him.”

Communication Between the Bars

Besides serving as an example that a funder can back cross-sector activism among grantees, one of the most striking features of this grant program is its focus on getting art into and out of prisons. Multiple partnerships offer creative experiences for jailed people, and several bring the prisoners’ expressions out to the un-incarcerated public. In so doing, the fund creates channels of communication that cross and erode physical and cultural barriers.

In Richmond, Virginia, one grantee, a youth arts and advocacy organization called Art 180, is running a program called Performing Statistics with the Legal Aid Justice Center. This project connects incarcerated teens with artists, educators and policy advocates to “transform the juvenile justice system.” The young incarcerated people’s artwork makes up a traveling exhibition. It is used to train local police on topics like youth perspectives, trauma-informed policy, and alternatives to arrest and incarceration. The art is also sent to public schools to spark dialogue and action among students and staff. Through this initiative, Art for Justice’s grantmaking steps into other complex, related realms of philanthropy, including education and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Trey Hartt, Performing Statistics project director, says the organization hopes the art inspires classroom conversations “that reimagine what public safety looks like in schools, and that the vision comes directly from the perspectives of the students and teachers who are [most] affected by school policies that push students out of school and onto the path toward incarceration.”

A Performing Statistics youth ambassador explains what the experience means to him: “I am thankful I can be here to speak for everybody that can’t speak for themselves. It feels like now, people have to listen to what I have to say.”