When we think about libertarians, the liberty movement, Capitol Hill and politics, very few people think about how the artists are getting involved. Many times, they’re seen as a nuisance. What’s that dancer doing commenting on complex issues like capital gains tax and medical care markets? I hang out around a lot of artists and I collaborate with them on a daily basis. While a painting has never swayed my position on gun rights, artists are the most continuously passionate and motivated political activists in society. When they really discover their role, they can move mountains.
So I wanted to launch an Art Gala about art in politics.
Yes, when I pitched this event to a lot of people, I got a lot of blank stares — the NYU College Democrats and Republicans never returned my emails, the NYU Politics Society never really understood what we College Libertarians were doing, the NYU F4NK group didn’t have enough energy or funds since they had just hosted a conference with the Columbia LiNK, and my own art school seemed to ignore us (and yes, I followed up multiple times!).
It could have been the fact that the NYU College Libertarians were attached to it, or just that everyone is pretty busy with finals or whatnot, however if you’ve read startup literature, you’ll know that long term value is not discovered in the excellence of goals for every project. It’s discovered by utilizing every chance you can to learn how to pivot your model and build knowledge about the reality you’re facing.
So we pivoted. Our Art Gala would be a minimally viable product for seeing how art can be utilized in broadcasting meaning and values in ways words cannot. We would learn what works on a much less resource intensive level than a full-on 100 person conference.
Here’s an example; earlier last month, a good friend of mine flew in from Hungary. We caught up since we hadn’t seen each other since 2015, before the election. He had all these questions and worries about our democracy — about what is going on…certainly, it just doesn’t make sense. After some coffee, I showed him a documentary I’ve been working on all about our American experience over the Summer. When he watched it, something clicked. Something worked and he understood the unspeakable frustrations and divisions on a much more visceral, experiential level. Art communicates and moves minds and emotions.
The question: How can we libertarians implement art into our activism and our message to have a greater impact? So here it is, a libertarian Art Gala. For most, those words don’t quite connect, the synergy isn’t there. But imagine this; a small art gallery set up by a small exhibit called “Unnatural Election.” We had sourced artworks from around the nation in response to the election and we hung them up on our small panels to showcase their work. We also included some other artists from the area; some photography and a painting. It was small, but at the end of the day, it’s about the audience being able to interact with it.
I also had a friend take photos and video of the event so that we could use and share them later, either to remember this event or to promote a future event. If a conference happens and no one posts photos from it, did it really even happen? It’s vital to have something to show for it and something people can share and see and be a part of.
We also had partnering organizations who tabled to provide networking and professional opportunities to attendees. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the Moving Picture Institute, and Taliesin Nexus have tons of great initiatives that will keep students connected beyond the conference.
In collaboration with the Leadership Institute, we were able to have a Free Speech Ball in the iconic Washington Square Park — at least… that was the plan.
Our intentions were very earnest: we hoped to bring the large beach ball to the park so that local pedestrians could exercise their first amendment rights. However, within thirty minutes, two New York Police Department officers arrived, threatening to issue a criminal citation to all of us if we did not move the ball out of the park. We asked where we could relocate it, to which we received no reply. This encounter was surprising to me in several aspects. First, we had a beach ball. A beach ball. I don’t see that as equivalent to a criminal citation, especially because we were not being disrespectful to the officers nor the other pedestrians in the park. Secondly, this was the first time I had such a negative experience with police. It escalated to the level where I was threatened with a criminal citation, simply because I wanted to exercise my rights. The dynamics of this unfortunate situation were precisely why we needed to be out there in the first place. That beach ball meant something, truly, in this context.
My philosophy has been to think like a startup: start small, work lean, test everything, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out with a great idea. We’re still learning, but I can tell you this: there are brilliant, talented individuals in the Northeast, ready to spread liberty. If we can continue to engage with others in meaningful conversation and participate with them through different mediums, perhaps we can advance this novel idea of freedom.
This post was written by Calvin Tran, with contributions from Rachel Chiu. Calvin Tran is a Campus Coordinator and served as Conference Director for the Art Gala. He is a junior at New York University. Rachel Chiu is Students For Liberty’s Northeast Regional Director, a member of their North American Executive Board, and a sophomore at Cornell University.
Photos by Ranya Aloui and Will Robinson.