Greenpeace’s Poster Contest is Harmful to Our Movement
Art has the power to influence social change. I fully agree that we should encourage our comrades to express themselves creatively and collectively in the name of justice. I also believe in calling out leading organizations when they do something that affects our art world and our movement in a harmful way. Greenpeace, your poster campaign was a bad move, and I cannot sit back without encouraging this discussion.
When I first saw the Arctic Campaign’s poster contest pop up in my Facebook feed, I was in shock! Art contests, while they can seem well-meaning, are historically detrimental to artists everywhere, and therefore dangerous to the (environmental) Movement. Art contests are synonymous with asking for free art. As a freelance artist over the last 8 years, I have been asked to produce art for free countless times, and I am certainly not alone in that struggle. And though I have a thriving arts business, I still receive the occasional request for unpaid spec work, under-compensated concept sketches, and “donations” to non-profits under the guise of the dreaded E word: exposure. For instance, just last month, IBM asked my business to produce a free mural for their event (cue eyeroll and failed negotiations for shares). So, when one of the world’s largest non-profits commits the same act of treason against artists as a multi-bajillion dollar corporation, how will we fight the corporations when we need to win?
Art contests are considered socially acceptable because they promise exposure, and exposure has been magically transformed into a bogus currency that those with substantial wealth have used to legitimize our very existence as creative people. Quite blatantly, it is a manifestation of classist oppression, and it has to stop. It is abhorring that I am having to write to one of the most brilliantly branded non-profits in the world about why “exposure” driven by a contest is bad, yet here we are.
This competition between artists is definitely not the culture we want to be cultivating as radical artists. If we are just trying to “beat” each other with votes, how are we supposed to ever collaborate on larger projects? Teamwork is vital to producing artwork for any campaign, and this contest encouraged people to only vote for themselves or their friends, instead of viewing each piece of art as intentional and important to the conversation of Arctic preservation.
When you build a new ship, would you have a contest to see which architect could develop the best design, and then pay the winner with a vacation? Of course not! Yet the arts industry is victim to this silly mentality every single day. And we are continually fighting it! So help us, help you, Greenpeace. Support us, because without art, none of your campaigns would even exist.
What message are we sending to the artists that did not officially “win”? The opposite of winning is losing, and it breaks my heart to think that inspired and passionate artists, no matter what their age or quality of work, have been deemed invaluable. In the radical art world I’m a part of, every idea has value, but that concept cannot be found in the hunt for the dreaded E-word. The more we encourage proper professional and emotional development of aspiring artists, the more we encourage a world where people can follow their passions and best skillsets; we need passionate and skillful people in our movement so that we can accomplish changes that we need.
The more we financially support our artists, the more they can take time off from their other professional duties and join us in the streets, and contribute their limited volunteer time to massive community art builds and gatherings associated with direct action and campaigning. As a community artist, I can assure you the worst thing I’d want to hear is “I’d love to help paint that 100-foot banner, but I can’t volunteer any more time this month after drawing a poster for that Greenpeace contest. And no, I didn’t win.”
So why would anyone participate in this contest anyways? Because the trip! Oh, the coveted trip to the Arctic. I understand that your intentions are good, and that visiting the Arctic is a once in a lifetime opportunity. But the fact is, Greenpeace, vacations don’t pay the bills, no matter how remote, endangered, or exotic the location. The goals for the contest campaign seem misdirected. If you truly wanted the best artists, then why would you not offer money? Because real professional artists literally do not have time for contests, and certainly not for contests with no cash reward. They are busy managing client relations, producing commissioned artwork, and pressured by strict deadlines. The select images that should have received the most votes and an Arctic educational adventure (in my personal opinion) did not win, because the artists behind them were probably too busy being professionals to sit on their computer clicking the “vote for me” button all day. And I don’t know how long it takes to travel to the Arctic, but I would imagine fairly long, so it is actually a privileged assumption to believe that each person who won can take a couple weeks off of work. A couple weeks off can be the equivalent of a couple months off in Artistlandia.
The most confusing part about this contest was the encouragement and requirement of voting, yet the banner at the top of the webpage reads “3 Winners will be chosen by a panel of judges on May 12 to go to the Arctic with Greenpeace!” Wait… so why are we doing the competitive voting thing in the first place? And who are the judges? Causing confusion and competition is historically the recipe for chaos. Be better, Arctic Campaign. Lead by example. Supporting artists is not easy work, as it requires strategy, hard conversations, and community-building. So while I have your attention, let’s brainstorm some improvement and alternatives:
— Everyone’s art submissions could be printed into posters, and become a traveling art exhibit.
— Many Requests for Artists fairly compensate the runners-up, in addition to a handsome cash reward for the selected artists.
— Create a grant proposal opportunity for a community public art installation reflecting the issues in the Arctic.
— Feature a few artists per day on the website, with their bios and artist statement
— Print a banner composed of all of the artworks submitted (maybe mosaic style?) and make it the focus of direct communication or action.
These are just a few ideas, but I cannot wait to hear other people’s ideas for collaborative art projects on behalf of the Arctic Campaign! We live in an amazing time where artistic collaboration via technology is possible and opportunities are endless. I absolutely welcome the conversation and would be happy to brainstorm with campaigners, activists, and action development teams. Thank you for your time in reading this, and for believing in art in the first place! You are experts that understand the power of well-strategized marketing, intentional storytelling, and brilliant branding. So let’s cultivate real creative power and activate citizens to take direct action by supporting the art community and working together.
Why I’m writing: Chelsea Ritter-Soronen has been a volunteer with Greenpeace for nearly a decade, after participating in the Greenpeace Organizing Term in 2007. She has participated in GP actions in several countries and scattered across the United States, after which she was inspired to focus on activism and creative resistance in her own town of St. Louis, MO. She is a freelance muralist and arts educator, as well as owner of Chalk Riot. For the last couple of years, she has been an Arts in Action trainer with Greenpeace. She now lives in Napa, California.