Auditioning for Office

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

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.

According to author Richard Florida, though, America’s economy
has changed since the NEA was last targeted. In the book The
Rise of the Creative Class
(Basic, 2002), he estimates that 38
million Americans now use creativity in their professional lives to
propose new solutions to problems. The Creative America Project
believes these ‘creative workers’ can be organized around a new
class consciousness.

‘Artists are a great underused resource in civic life,’ notes
Creative America board member Kathie deNobriga. A theater director
and founding member of the Atlanta-based arts and social justice
organization Alternate ROOTS
deNobriga was elected to the city council in Pine Lake, Georgia, in
2002. ‘So much of what you might try to do [creatively] is hampered
in the political arena by the strings of government,’ she says. But
‘we need imagination . . . we need creativity . . . we need people
who can work well with other people. I feel like my arts experience
prepared me to do all this.’

In 2005 the Creative America Project is planning to hold training
sessions in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Champaign,
Madison/Racine, Cheyenne, Phoenix, and San Francisco. For more
information, visit

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.