July 27, 2023

If art is meant to evoke, then art activism has the potential to change the world.

Art has always been used as a tool to influence or protest, and that has certainly been true in the United States. Most recently, art has been used in reaction to debates on civil rights, war, AIDS, abortion and much more.

Izabel Galliera, assistant professor of art history at Susquehanna University, has been studying art activism for the past decade and recently published a book on the subject. This summer, she and two of her students are examining art activism after the Occupy movement, which “seems to have opened the door to protest movements at a scale and frequency we haven’t seen since the 1960s,” Galliera said.

“In the last 15 years or so, there have been multiple definitions put forward of what art activism is. I love this explanation by Steve Duncombe and Steve Lambert: ‘Artistic activism is a hybrid practice that marries the creative force of art to the concrete results of activism,’” Galliera said. “Being an activist really entails having an idea of what needs to be changed and doing something about it.”

In the United States, Occupy was a 2011 sociopolitical movement that expressed opposition to social and economic inequality fueled by financial and political corruption at the highest levels.

Students explore Philadelphia, New York City

Susquehanna students Alex Gabriel ’24, an art history major from Bayville, New Jersey, and Morgan Hough ’24, a creative writing and studio art double major from Shamong, New Jersey, have spent the summer with Galliera pursuing two goals: research and identify the themes and trends in current published scholarship on art activism since the Occupy movement; and examine art activist practices in Philadelphia and New York City in the last decade.

Gabriel, who has also been interning at the Jewish Museum, New York City, was interested in the research, he said, because it complements his capstone project.

“My capstone focuses on an artistic method called institutional critique, which calls attention to structural oppression and inequity within museums and the art world as a whole, an idea that is closely tied to art activism,” he said. “I knew this project would provide me with invaluable experiences and information to incorporate into my capstone, and that it would also help me better understand recent scholarship on activist initiatives in the art world.”

Hough was interested because she considers herself to be both an artist and activist.

“I am interested in learning more about the art activism that has unfolded within the last decade, with the goal of better understanding the role art practices have played in advocating for and furthering social justice initiatives,” she said.

Through weekly reading assignments, writing prompts and site visits in Philadelphia, Hough learned about the contemporary art activist scene locally, nationally and internationally.

“I have been able to contextualize case studies from Mural Arts Philadelphia and Monument Lab through the theoretical frameworks we have learned about, and even had the chance to interview Philadelphia artists and activists who are working on projects in the city,” Hough said.

After graduation, Hough hopes work as a community arts director within a museum, furthering the critical relationship between local artists, community members and the museum. Gabriel plans to pursue an advanced degree in art history or museum studies. He said his summer research experience has given him confidence in his future career goals.

“Going into this research, I knew that art history was my passion and that I was going to pursue a career in the field eventually,” Gabriel said. “I think that this experience really taught me that I am capable of pursuing those career goals and that contemporary art is truly where my interests lie.”

Learn more about Susquehanna’s Department of Art & Design.