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Artivism and the “Aha” Moment

This post originally appeared on the Douglas Gould and Company blog.

Think back to the exact moment when you decided to become an activist.

Go ahead. We’ll wait.

Was it…

Because someone sent you a petition?
Or because a friend forwarded you an advocacy alert?
Or, I know: was it because you read a really great white paper?

Chances are, none of these inspired you to become an activist. So why do advocacy organizations persist in using these approaches?

The answer is: they are safe and tested. They generate the kinds of measurable returns that professionals love to see. And they are not likely to end in a spectacular failure.

Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe, co-founders of the Center for Artistic Activism, want advocates to go out on a limb – not just to involve artists in their campaigns, but to produce campaigns that actually function as art, theater or performance.

What the heck does that mean? Some examples:

When the Open Society Foundation wanted to elevate perceptions of Roma health workers Bucharest, they sent young medical students out on public transportation and had them offer free doctor’s visits. Through a public spectacle (involving loud accordions) the campaign flipped existing stereotypes of Roma people as buskers; it presented Roma students not as panhandlers but as health providers and peers.



When artist Alfredo Jaar wanted to highlight the lack of cultural resources in the paper mill town of Skoghall, Sweden, he built them a free museum. He filled it with art created by local children. The opening ceremony was attended by virtually the entire community. After much pomp and circumstance, Jaar informed local residents that tomorrow he would burn the museum to the ground.

Local citizens were outraged. They went to their local government and demanded a change. But it was too late. Officials had already promised to let Jaar torch the beloved, new institution after 24 hours. The lesson? Local residents now understood the value of a civic arts space.


Finally, here’s an example that’s slightly better known. When the mayor of Bogota wanted to reduce traffic fatalities, he didn’t lower the speed limit or issue more tickets. He hired mimes as traffic guards. They mocked violators – both aggressive drivers and self-important pedestrians – and cut death rates in half. The idea has since caught on in a number of other Latin American cities.

Want more case studies of creative activism? An impressive selection has been compiled on the website Lambert and Duncombe stress that none of these campaigns will likely work outside of their specific context. However they can certainly inspire a new way of thinking about advocacy.

Another resource for imaginative social good campaigns is:, a site I helped to launch last year with the Ad Council and the World Economic Forum. This substantial database of global case studies can be searched by region and subject matter and includes samples of creative materials.

When looking at these campaigns, you may think: my Executive Director would never go for that. To this, Lambert offer constructive advice: consider your advocacy campaign like an investment portfolio. Spend some money on the tried and true advocacy methods – the marches, email outreach and petitions. But reserve some of your budget for experimentation. Take risks. Do something that’s not been done before. And don’t be afraid of failure.

Posted: October 20, 2014