Compelling and urgent: Artist initiatives in a New York under crisis

As a curatorial intern in the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, I was only supposed to stay in New York until April. But it was clear by mid-March, with the Australian borders closed and unpredictable flights, that I would remain quarantined here indefinitely. It has been a strange time, being in a city relatively new to me, observing as an outsider how things quickly unfolded. By late March, New York had become an epicentre of the pandemic with a staggering number of deaths. Studies have revealed that the virus has disproportionately affected black communities at a rate nearly two times higher than other ethnic demographics. There were public outcries at how the pandemic has amplified existing injustices and left the marginalised more vulnerable. These outcries, however, were soon subsumed by a harrowingly familiar incident: the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers in broad daylight. The death of George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was met with immediate outrage, sparking #BlackLivesMatter protests that continue to resonate worldwide.

Poster House and Between Bridges, two cultural organisations that launched creative communal projects in response to the pandemic, have since shifted their focus to different forms of activism, amplifying the voices of black creatives in support of police reform initiatives and calling for solidarity against racial injustice. Their projects represent a microcosm of grassroots responses by New York artists to the socio-economic impacts of the ongoing crisis.

Among the first New York museums to close due to the pandemic, Poster House initiated one of the largest COVID-19-related projects. An ongoing city-wide public art campaign, #COMBATCOVID commissioned over 20 designers to produce posters of ‘love, gratitude, and solidarity with New York City’s frontline workers’, as well as messages of public health and safety. The posters have been displayed on nearly 1800 digital screens, including the iconic billboards of Times Square. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Poster House took to Instagram to emphasise their mission of collecting work by BIPOC artists and designers. Most notably, they showcased two 1969 posters by Emory Douglas, the African–American graphic designer who worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and contextualised these works within a long history of black activism. As a museum with an educational mission, Poster House also dedicated their Instagram Stories platform to share resources relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, continuing their commitment to engage and inform the broad public of significant social issues that posters visualise and communicate.

2020Solidarity’ is a fundraising project by Between Bridges, a non-profit space founded by artist Wolfgang Tillmans in 2006. For this initiative, the Turner Prize-winning German photographer invited over 50 international artists to each contribute a poster design to be sold at a set price of US$50, with all proceeds going towards supporting independent spaces and publications threatened by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Between Bridges prints and distributes the posters free of charge and encourages non-profits to participate. Major New-York based organisations like Artists Space, ISCP and Visual Aids are among some of the many spaces that are involved in selling the posters to fundraise. On his Instagram feed following the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, Tillmans highlighted Marlene Dumas’s poster of the late African–American writer James Baldwin (2014, from the ‘Great Men’ series), a new print being sold at London’s Black Tower Projects, with all proceeds going to police reform and educational campaigns in the United Kingdom. Such initiatives follow Tillmans’s own activist commitments in the area – he took photographs of one of the first #BlackLivesMatter protests in New York in 2014, one of which, an image of a hand raised in the air, prominently featured on the cover of Artforum’s March 2017 issue Show of Hands. Six years since that photo was taken, the image and the issues that first prompted the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement remain as compelling and urgent as ever.

Annette An-Jen Liu, New York

Annette An-Jen Liu is a 2020 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia supported by artsACT.