Art: What is it Good For? | The Power of Art in Social Justice Reform

Art What Is It Good For


What makes art “public?” Is it the approval of a committee or government, or is it the number of people who see it? Is it how large the work is, or how much change it can bring? Is it beautiful or brutal?

In recent days, we have witnessed the power of images. Every protest sign, every mural of George Floyd reminds us of the horrible images of his death. Every second of those 8 minutes and 46 seconds calls us to action. Journalists document protests taking place all over the world, showing us images of outrage, hurt and refusal to return to the status quo. We see images of too many others needlessly killed. The brutality of the images makes us want to turn away, but instead we must face the hard truth of being Black in America. If you don’t like what you see, imagine what it is like to see it and feel it every day.

We have also seen some “public art,” monuments to racism, being toppled in protest. The power mistakenly placed in those monuments must be shifted. We believe that public art serves as a catalyst for change, and the time for change is now.

Big Picture Initiative is joining with the Peoria Area Visitor and Convention Bureau and ArtsPartners to support and amplify the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We are in the conceptualizing stage as we write this column. There is work to do, good collaboration to develop, hurdles to be jumped, permits to be obtained, but we are committed to working to support the movement through art.
“This work is a symbol of our community coming together through public art to facilitate positive change against racism and raise awareness of oppression,” said Heather Ford, Big Picture board member and one of the team leaders on the project along with board member Heather Brammeier and volunteer Darrin Ford.

“We all define the future of our community. Each one of us can participate and play a part in solidarity, education and allied resilience,” Ford said. “It is all of our responsibility to do the work. Art can help the movement towards solutions as a change agent for racial justice and equity.”

Josh Albrecht, chief marketing officer of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (PACVB) said, “A big component of our mission and what we work for every day is quality of life. When it comes to social movements and enhancing the quality of life for people in our community, it is a no brainer for us to get involved and support that and to be as welcoming as possible for the community. When we discussed internally what we could be doing to support our community and these efforts, our first thought was public art and after seeing what other cities were doing throughout the nation, we felt that using public art would be a perfect fit for Peoria.”

PACVB and Big Picture Initiative are also developing plans for longer term continued support of the Black Lives Movement. We are considering projects like portraits and profiles and a Story Corps-type concept where members of the community share their stories online giving us a chance to get to know our neighbors.

For far too long, the citizens of our community have allowed many of our neighbors to be mistreated and to lack access to quality health care and even healthy food. Many have chosen to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of others, perhaps because of the overwhelming gravity of what needs to be addressed. Fortunately, artists are usually the first responders in times of crisis, The freedom of expression is currently not under threat of being silenced, and artists everywhere are adding their voices to the growing amplification of what needs to be heard. Even here in Middle America, Peoria, Illinois.

Stop collage

Art gives students a platform to share their views of the world. This collage was created in a 2019 class taught by Brenda Gentry, Pamela Gargiulo and Kevin Mello Bradford Jr. at the Romain Arts and Culture Community Center. The class discussed several social issues and the kids picked their top three: gun violence, dropout, and social media. (PHOTO BY MAGGIE MISSELHORN)


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