When artist and activist Nan Goldin organized Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing in 1989, the first group exhibition to take on the AIDS crisis in New York City, its intimate, visceral works helped transform the national conversation around AIDS. But a government clash first put it in peril.
Shortly before the exhibition’s launch, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) withdrew its $10,000 grant after seeing the exhibition’s catalogue, which denounced conservative policymakers who failed to fund AIDS research and discouraged safe sex practices. “In those days, that was a lot of money. It could actually make or break an exhibition,” Goldin tells TIME.
While the grant was eventually reinstated after much public pressure (with the money barred from being used for the catalogue), the lesson was clear: creating transformative art means ensuring that art-friendly politicians get elected. Which is one major reason Goldin and thousands of other artists are organizing for Bernie Sanders.
Goldin is one of 3,700 creatives who signed a letter of endorsement put out by Artists4Bernie, an artist-led campaign in support of the candidate. High-profile backers also include M.I.A., Jim Jarmusch, Kara Walker and Martha Rosler.
“Artists are the ultimate freelancers: no healthcare, no security,” says Lauren Boyle of DIS collective, which helped launch Artists4Bernie. “So together all these art and culture workers are coming together to say ‘We together’ support this candidate and this is why.”
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, an enthusiastic Sanders supporter who has performed at the candidate’s rallies, tells TIME that Sanders’s promises of Medicare for All and erasing student debt will allow more artists to pursue creative opportunities. “Without access to health care and a social safety net, a life in the arts can be really hellish. It’s difficult enough to be an artist, to have to deal with a lot of rejection and the difficulty of the creative process, but truly the biggest problem is: Can you support yourself?”
Koenig adds that he felt “a huge sense of precarity” before he found success as a musician. Having to burn through years of savings from working odd jobs, “real concerns about health insurance and work took over, freaked me out really, and there’s a universe in which I very easily could not have been able to pursue Vampire Weekend,” he says. “When I think about politics, I actually think more about the brief moment I worked at Quiznos and the year I worked as a teacher than my standing right now.”
Although Sanders has spoken less about supporting the arts in 2020, he didn’t shy away from it during the 2016 election cycle. “You have my promise that as President, I will be an arts President,” he said in a video message to the Arts Action Fund. “I will continue to advocate strongly for robust funding of the arts in our cities, schools and public spaces. Art is speech. Art is what life is about.”
The outpouring of artists’ support for Sanders is, in part, a rejection of the current president, artist Hannah Black explained. Last month, President Donald Trump again proposed cutting funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in a section titled “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending” in his 2021 budget proposal. The Administration has repeatedly attempted to eliminate the NEA and NEH, noting in the proposal that activities funded by these cultural agencies “are not considered core Federal responsibilities.”
But this uncertain political environment also fuels conflict within artistic communities, some artists say. Artists of color “are bearing the burden of excessive progressive expectations,” says Black. “We are supposed to offer hope and healing in a time of general despair, when we ourselves are also struggling to feel safe.”
Black says she hopes that increased funding for the arts under a Sanders administration might temper what some call “toxic philanthropy”—when exhibitions rely on donations from individuals or corporations that many artists deem detrimental to society. For example, eight artists withdrew from the Whitney Biennial after learning that Warren B. Kanders, a trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was tied to the sale of tear gas and other military supplies. The Sackler family, which has its name on at least 22 cultural institutions, has also prompted many to distance themselves over the family’s role in the country’s opioid epidemic.
Sanders is not the only candidate in this election’s Democratic field who has shown a commitment to the arts. Elizabeth Warren pledged her support for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Pete Buttigieg’s husband said he would fight for arts education as First Gentleman. Michael Bloomberg, who also recently dropped out, has been compared to the Medici family for his support for the arts and has one of the strongest track records for arts funding, investing more than $3 billion during his three terms as New York City mayor, according to Artnet News.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, now Sanders’s main rival in the race, has not spoken much about the arts in his current campaign, but has shown support through his work for the Obama administration. Well-known for embracing the arts, Obama surrounded the White House with artists and performers. He also played a part in the creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton by inviting the playwright to the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in May of 2009, where the song Miranda performed was eventually made into the musical’s opening number. (The Biden and Sanders’s campaigns could not immediately be reached for comment.)
Artist Martha Rosler, who signed the Artists4Bernie petition, says Sanders’s past vocal support of the arts “shows a deeper understanding of the integral role of the arts in the lives of ourselves and our children; it builds community, from the earliest age.”
As mayor of Burlington, Sanders founded the Mayor’s Arts Council, which brought the arts into low-income areas, funded public performances and festivals, and established local galleries. The 1988 U.S. Conference of Mayors called Burlington “one of the most livable cities for the arts.” Sanders and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, also helped establish 242 Main Street, an all-ages punk club that hosted bands like Fugazi. Sanders also received earnest support from the punk world in 2016. In addition to Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver and Public Enemy have both performed at Sanders campaign rallies.
“In Bernie, we see an FDR figure who not only thinks of art as a feel-good, do-good world that needs support, but a field of labor where workers produce value,” says Mohammad Salemy of Artists4Bernie. “Only Bernie’s support for the arts recognizes the link between labor in general and art in particular.”
Recalling the pushback to her 1989 AIDS exhibition, Goldin adds “there would not have been that kind of atmosphere if Sanders was President.”