This New Bootcamp Is Grooming Artists to Run for Office

  • Photo by Fotis Vrotsis Photography, via Getty.

    Photo by Fotis Vrotsis Photography, via Getty.

Even for the most politically engaged artist, it’s a big step from making politically charged artworks to actually entering the fray as a candidate. While some artists have the skills and knowledge to work in politics, the road from being in a biennial to appearing on a ballot is not easy to navigate.

Enter the Artist Campaign School, a new, nonpartisan boot camp geared towards teaching artists the basics of politicking. Currently accepting applications for its first camp through September 15th, the school will bring together some 100 to 150 artists in Detroit for free training sessions over the course of a few days this October. Participating artists will be given lessons from experts to learn fundamental skills needed to run successful campaigns, including how to build a staff, communicate with the media, manage scheduling, and raise funds.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks artists can’t get shit done,” said Lauren Ruffin, VP for external affairs at Fractured Atlas, the artist advocacy group that’s spearheading the school. The idea first came to Ruffin shortly after the divisive U.S. presidential election, when it became clear to many that American politics was in a state of disrepair. And who better to begin fixing the country’s problems from the ground up than artists?

“I think artists are actually perfect politicians,” Ruffin said. Artists have many of the skills that traditional politicians need: marketing savvy, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills, and well as the ability to gain the spotlight and express themselves clearly. Plus, crucially, for anyone looking to engage in hustings, artists aren’t afraid to self-promote. And unlike, say, your career prosecutor-turned-politician, artists are skilled at visual presentation—something that’s already become clear in the work of For Freedoms, the artist-run super PAC that’s putting up artist-designed issue-ads across the country. (The organization is one of a number of arts organizations working with the Artist Campaign School.)

Beyond mastering the skills of today’s political class, it’s possible that artists can develop new models of campaigning and governing as well. Artists are known to work collaboratively with numerous stakeholders to realize beautiful and meaningful artworks, projects, and events—at times, with very little resources. “In many ways, I think that’s a microcosm of what politics should be right now and isn’t,” Ruffin said.

  • Photo by Wyatt Gallery. Courtesy of For Freedoms.

    Photo by Wyatt Gallery. Courtesy of For Freedoms.

While Artist Campaign School aims to assist politically inclined artists in reaching whatever office they aspire to, the short-term goal of the boot camp is to produce a few dozen candidates to run for lower-level posts and create a pipeline of candidates. These positions are often hugely important when it comes to issues that impact artists (like affordable housing) and society at large.

Imagine artists being elected to a local zoning board, contesting often unopposed sheriffs in small-town races; or serving as magistrates who adjudicate seemingly minor offenses like parking tickets (such tickets, Ruffin notes, can turn into warrants being issued to poor families that are unable to pay the fines).

The school’s website only launched last Friday and the programming is still taking shape. But Ruffin said she is looking to invite artists who have served as politicians to the camp to speak with artists and help with training. She is also working with Anu Rangappa, a political strategist who previously served as senior advisor for general election strategies at the Democratic National Committee, to bring the school to fruition.

As of Tuesday, Ruffin had received 27 applications—including one from an artist who already holds a political office. Those ultimately selected to attend will also work together to create a campaign plank on a subject to be decided by the group—like housing, health care, or arts in schools. “Above and beyond that, there isn’t a particular political ideology you have to be a part of,” said Ruffin.

Recently, there have been a few high-profile examples of artists trying their hand at the ballot box. Just this week, it was reported that spoken word poet Nikkita Oliver may still make the runoff election for Seattle mayor, running on the People’s Party ticket pending a potential recount. And artist and curator Ingrid Lafleur announced her candidacy for Detroit mayor as a write-in candidate, though she didn’t make it to the final ballot, after failing to be one of the top two candidates in Tuesday’s primary.

“As curator and artist I’ve learned how to bring people together, to solve problems creatively, to be a good organizer, a good researcher,” Lafleur told the New York Times when announcing her candidacy in March, citing the arts network in the city as a major asset. “We plan to tap into the huge art and creative community that has taken root in this city, to reach voters through them.”

A significant challenge Lafleur and other artist candidates face is fundraising. Ruffin noted that artists’ politics predominantly skew left, and they typically maintain an anti-money stance. Even if they occasionally move through circles of high wealth, the vast majority of artists are not rich, and some live in poverty. Ruffin said that those who need money the most often have trouble asking for it. It’s a hurdle that artists-turned-candidates will need to learn to jump, in order to compete in ever-expensive campaigns.

“Fundraising will be the biggest lift” for artists, said Ruffin. “But I think they’ll knock everything else out of the park.”


—Isaac Kaplan