Art Ignites Political Activism at California State University, Northridge
Harnessing the transformative power of the visual arts to encourage midterm election participation.
In fall 2022, California State University, Northridge Art Galleries hosted What Would You Say?: Activist Graphics from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the latest offering from Local Access, a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA), part of Art Bridges’ Cohort Program.
Organized by LACMA in collaboration with the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, Riverside Art Museum, California State University, Northridge Art Galleries and the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College, this exhibition demonstrates the Cohort’s continued commitment to embracing California as a site of invention, dynamism, and creativity through the works of primarily locally-based artists and collectives.
Design Meets Activism
Exploring the intersections of design and political activism, What Would You Say? examines how designers and artists of the 1960s and 1970s championed civil rights through new and compelling visual languages. Skilled at distilling complex, and sometimes controversial messages into digestible and captivating forms, these designers and artists were influential voices of their generation, whose impacts continue to be felt today.
The experimental and social justice driven ethos of these designers and artists was the catalyst for the California State University, Northridge (CSUN) Art Galleries’ Learning & Engagement project. Recognizing the broad awareness of racial disparities in healthcare, wages, and police treatment on CSUN’s campus — but with the connection between reform and voting less evident — CSUN Art Galleries built a project to work with and engage students from historically disenfranchised communities.
By making space for Black, Chicano, Asian and LGBTQIA+ students, the project prioritized their experiences and voices leading up to the 2022 midterm elections. Partnerships with campus organizations such as the Black House, Chicano House, Pride Center, CSUN Associated Students, CSUN Sustainability, CSUN Dream Center, and CSUN Feminist Club deepened outreach efforts.
Fomenting Social Change
Further inspired by the political activism of the L.A.-based artist workshops and collectives of the 60s and 70s, CSUN Art Galleries worked with local activist artist collective Artists 4 Democracy, who led a series of free workshops for students on zine and poster making, as well as costume design and social media activism.
Collective members also provided short lectures on activist art and gave participants guidance on continued artmaking beyond the workshops. After the completion of each session, finished works were featured in Say What!, a student exhibition that evolved with additions from each workshop and inspired repeat viewer engagements.
Today, art continues to be a powerful tool to foment social change and galvanize political movements, especially for marginalized communities, who continue to lack equitable access to voting. This formed the core of this project as students thoughtfully engaged with many issues of our time — reproductive rights, Indigenous sovereignty, voting rights, equal pay, and gun control — through painted, written and drawn forms.
CSUN Interim Director Erika Ostrander shares, “The Say What! Learning & Engagement project was an amazing opportunity for the CSUN students to use their creative skills to generate empowerment and voice for their community as a way to get out the vote for the midterm elections.”
On election day, CSUN Art Galleries hosted a “Party to the Polls” where students were reminded to vote and enjoyed election-inspired collateral from the workshops. This layered approach to civic engagement demonstrates CSUN’s commitment to demystifying student participation in the U.S. political process, especially for first time voters.
Although decades have passed since the exhibition works were created, the enthusiasm towards activist-informed artmaking remains today. As this project made clear, the artists of the 60s and 70s provided tools, tactics, and practices that continue to find new and nuanced resonances for young people today.
Why We Love This Project
We love that CSUN Art Galleries inspires students to use their voices in creative and hands-on ways to build greater awareness of modern-day social inequities. Further, we love that they provided concrete resources that enabled ease, familiarity, and excitement towards voting. This project exemplifies the Art Galleries prioritization of civic engagement and access through low-barrier and creative experiences.
Published March 31, 2023