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Susan Meiselas' "2 a.m. Arrest and documentation of 12-year-old boy, Imperial Beach, California, 1989." Image courtesy of For Freedoms

Denver’s Newest Billboard Isn’t Trying to Sell You Anything

The massive photograph in southwest Denver is part of For Freedoms' nationwide effort to prompt civic engagement and dialogue through art.

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If you’re driving down Federal Boulevard in the Barnum area in the next few weeks, you may notice something a bit odd: A billboard displaying a black-and-white photograph of a child, wearing a short-sleeve button-up and standing against a height chart, getting his photograph taken. It’s accompanied by just two words: For Freedoms.

The image was captured by New York documentary photographer Susan Meiselas in 1989 as part of her “Crossings” series exploring the U.S./Mexico border. (It was shot in Imperial Beach, California, which is less than 10 miles from the border.) When she was invited to take part in For Freedom’s 50 State Initiative—a national project that’s placing artist-created billboards in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico—she chose the image because, in many ways, it’s one she could have captured today. “It speaks to our times, both the documentation of that young boy and what we know to be happening with children being separated from their parents and isolated,” Meiselas says. “Hopefully it resonates with people thinking about what would be an appropriate way to be inclusive with border crossings.”

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Thinking—and talking—about the important issues of our day was precisely what artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman envisioned when they founded For Freedoms in 2016. Their goal was to create a platform that engages artists in the political system and presidential election—a nonpartisan PAC. “Artists are so often political, but we don’t turn to them for creative solutions to problems we face every day,” says Emma Nuzzo, For Freedoms programs manager. “Artistic space can be used for civic action.”

It was intended as a limited-time project: an art exhibition in summer 2016 at the longstanding Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City and a 16-state billboard project in the month leading up to the election. Instead of winding down, though, For Freedoms’ programming only expanded. “People were talking about the image[s] they were seeing in a more nuanced and complex way than the typical political conversation at the time,” Nuzzo says of that original 16-billboard run. “We couldn’t stop.”

During the first 100 days of the Trump administration, the group had an artist residency at the Museum of Modern Art. The 50 State Initiative launched this year, ahead of the midterm elections, and the group is calling it “the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history.”

Beyond funding and curating the billboards in every state, For Freedoms has also partnered with more than 200 local organizations across the country, from museums to high schools to art collectives, to host events such as town halls and exhibitions. “Local issues are what’s really on the ballot and what’s most important for these communities to be talking about,” Nuzzo says. “[The events are] something to engage their community in creative civic engagement before the midterm elections.”

In Colorado, that translates to a number of exhibitions at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, including the mixed-media storytelling of Virgil Ortiz’s Revolution—Rise Against the Invasion.

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Nuzzo says For Freedoms has received funding from both sides of the political aisle and the organization is serious about being nonpartisan. She actually used the term “antipartisan.” “What For Freedoms is doing is giving a platform for speech,” Nuzzo says. “Looking at art requires using your critical eye. So often when we’re looking at these issues, we’re not using our critical eye. We want everyone to come to the table and have a productive discussion and an open mind.”

You have until Election Day to view Meiselas’ immigration photo (near the intersection of Federal Boulevard and West Irvington Place) in person—and with an open mind.

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