As the US primaries are in full swing, the idea of the arts and culture sector galvanizing communities and its constituents is not a new one. We wrote about museums’ unique place to advocate for social impact last Fall. We talk to our clients about the purpose of arts and culture all the time – from the impacts they want to make in their communities and speaking up about contemporary issues, but when it comes to civic action what does that look like in practice at arts and cultural institutions?  

The civic season

Coined by Made By Us, a collective of museums and heritage sites across the United States, the Civic Season is a new tradition that spans the period between Juneteenth and July 4th to ignite our democracy with the nation’s history. This year’s season kicked off days before Juneteenth at the Atlanta History Center Midtown along with a livestream of festivities. Both at the event and online, participants could record their views about the country and have them archived at the Library of Congress with StoryCorps.

Opening spaces to welcome civic engagement

Several arts institutions in New York opened their spaces for early voting this past June, including Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center, Museum of Moving Image and The Met Museum. The Museum of Moving Image was the first arts organization to open its space at the inception of early voting in 2018 and The Met joined last year. Vice President of External Affairs, Ken Weine, at The Met shared the news: “We’re excited to be a polling site, to have a role in our democracy. And we are equally, if not more excited to use this opportunity to invite visitors to come and visit The Met.” It’s not just happening in New York, but has been across the nation from California to Alaska to Georgia and so forth. The American Alliance of Museums provides access to non-profit voter resources to guide these voter advocacy efforts.

Sparking civic engagement in galleries

Manchester Art Gallery celebrated the centenary year for Women’s Suffrage in Britain with an exhibition dedicated to Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst senior was a leader in a women’s right to vote and arrested back in 1913 for damaging property. This later ensued fellow Suffragettes to crack glasses on some of the prized paintings in Manchester Art Gallery.

Smithsonian’s ongoing travelling exhibition Voices and Votes: Democracy in America provides the story of America’s path to democracy and ignites questions that still resonate today. What are the responsibilities of citizens?  Whose voices are heard? How to engage in civic participation? Leading up to Election Day, this timely exhibition tours Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and New Jersey.

Civic engagement outside of the polls

Looking wider beyond voting rights, museums are highlighting and encouraging community engagement. Lincoln Center embraces its civic role beyond just being a polling space. They believe arts are an essential part of civic life and actively promote participation through blood drives and food distributions. 

Path with Arts in Seattle, WA has been advocating how civic engagement through arts can drive social change for over a decade. What began with a group of women sharing the power of art with a local women’s shelter has become a mission to change the way their community interacts with homelessness, creating programming in public spaces that welcome both housed and unhoused citizens to share in the collective power of the arts. 

Recently upon the overturn of Roe v Wade, President Lincoln’s Cottage opened up their space for reflection. Welcoming guests to a “secular, non-partisan gathering space” with two hours of self-guide reflection and an hour of facilitated conversation. This was a great example of pivoting spaces responding to
current civic discussions.

Image credits: 
Love Letters for Everybody, Corrina Keeling
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Courtesy of National Archives.