Auditioning for Office

Progressives want artists to take the political stage


| March / April 2005


Artists are no strangers to progressive politics. In the United States, however, the word liberal has gone the way of loose-fit corduroys and well-funded public schools. Activists working in creative fields have since been struggling to stay both inspired and involved. Political organizers on the left are anxious to find fresh ways to motivate their base.

Answering the call, the Chicago-based Creative America Project is recruiting and training artists to run for local office in 2006. 'We need to elevate creativity to a national value and priority,' explains Tom Tresser, the non-profit's lead organizer. 'All people should be able to create, invent, and contribute to their fullest ability.'

Creative America's training sessions, which began in January and are scheduled throughout 2005, cost about $75 a person and run for two and a half days. The goal is to teach organizers and candidates how 'to run for local office -- using grassroots progressive strategies -- as a creative person.' This involves building a base of support, selling creativity as a way to solve problems, garnering media attention, and soliciting financial support. Workshops with titles like 'Paid Media Basics' and 'Creating Alliances and Producing Events' are held in conjunction with poetry readings and open-ended brainstorming sessions.

'Creativity and the ability to reinvent yourself is the American promise and fuels our ingenuity, acceptance, and drive to innovate,' Tresser says. Ideally, artist-politicians will understand that to foster such traits, American society must remain open-minded and tolerant. In practical terms, that means using public office to fight for the First Amendment, church-state separation, better public schools, the right to same-sex marriage, and reversing the income gap between rich and poor.

A former Shakespearean actor and theater manager, Tresser began to wax political in 1990, when the far right was attempting to eliminate public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The MacArthur Foundation sent him on a six-city tour 'to see what was going on with artists across the country, and what they were doing in the cities to speak up for the arts,' he says. Upon returning home, according to the Chicago Reader (Dec. 24, 2004), he started an organization called Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts, which fused political and creative work to register voters and endorse candidates for local, state, and national office. The group disbanded in 1994.

'Nothing's changed, really, since I started talking about this in 1990 and went around the country in 1991 and 1992 to talk to arts groups about why they needed to organize to fight the right,' Tresser says.