08 November 2006
Dan Walsh
Dan Walsh

Back in 1981, I began conducting free monthly workshops entitled "Design and Communication Basics for Social Activists" in the basement of a Washington D.C. peace center. They proved so popular that for ten years beginning in 1985 my firm, Liberation Graphics, was awarded an annual Community Arts grant from the Ruth Mott Fund to take the workshops on the road to locations throughout the U.S.

The intended audience for these presentations was street-smart cultural workers and political activists. However, almost every workshop had a contingent of art educators, many of whom invited me to visit their schools and speak with their students. These visits exposed me to the vibrant galaxy of art being produced by students riveting, transcendent art that was being graded, tucked away, and forgotten. They also awakened me to the pervasive and troublesome phenomenon of art contests.

You know what these are the "save the planet" contests, the "just say no to drugs" contests, the "let's get along" anti-violence contests. Teachers often viewed these contests with skepticism because they tended to produce mediocre art while simultaneously alienating student artists from the creative process. It was the opinion of these educators that art contests are, with few exceptions, models of miseducation. The sponsors of these contests, teachers said, are either woefully ignorant of or indifferent to the real interests and needs of the student artists who participate in them.

Here is a list of what teachers said were the most unfortunate elements of a typical art contest:

1. It is a non-recurring event.
Students cannot learn from their first experience and do a better job next time around because there is no next time around.

2. It offers a narrow, self-serving theme.
The sponsoring agency is often motivated primarily by its own need for promotional images to use in some campaign. This results in innumerable nearly-identical entries: hundreds of peace posters, each with a rainbow of children holding hands; scores of fire safety posters, each with a house aflame; dozens of recycling posters, each with a graphic of a bottle or can and the caption "reuse, reduce, recycle." Participating artists are not encouraged, or even allowed, to broaden the range of themes.

3. It fails to provide resource support.
There is no thematic background material, implementation suggestions for educators, design tips, or useful do s and don'ts, which would encourage students to grow as artists and citizens through the process of participation.

4. It is insensitive to the educational calendar.
Starting dates and submission deadlines are usually set for the convenience of the contest sponsor, not to complement the rhythm of the teaching and learning cycle.

5. It uses competitive language that undermines progressive arts education.
The unseemly focus on winning creates an adversarial relationship between artists. Terms such as "winner" inevitably connote their opposites, i.e., "loser." Similarly inappropriate terms such as "best," "prizes", "competition" and "contest" reinforce the idea that participating artists are not on a quest to address an issue, develop their own artistic style, or enhance their skills but rather to beat out the other artists for some material reward.

6. It offers inappropriate awards.
Many contests offer cash awards, which are unimaginative and counterproductive in the context of an educational activity. In addition, the total numbers of awards are usually small, thereby reinforcing the "winner/loser" mentality.

7. The judging process is not fair.
Students are not informed up front of the criteria or process by which their work will be evaluated. In addition, jury members' qualifications are not stated and they are not required to provide any public explanation for how they came to their decisions.

8. The art disappears after the contest is over.
Very few contests exhibit all of the contributed work. Some of the art may be displayed for a short time in a hallway, lobby or remote public space but that's about it. This means that most participants are denied the opportunity to have their work seen by their fellow students, families, and local community. Only "winners" are honored in this way. The result is that the critical connection between the community and artist is lost.

9. Few contests solicit feedback or criticism.
Many contests appear out of the blue with little or no advance notice and have very short life spans. Educators and students must race to meet often-arbitrary deadlines and criteria which were set without the benefit of student, faculty, or school administrator input. And because they are one-time events, the sponsors are not interested in suggestions for improving the process.

In June 2000 I was asked to create an arts outreach program for The Justice Project, a new non-partisan, non-profit organization launched by Robert O. Muller, co-founder and coordinator of the Nobel Prize-winning landmine campaign. A central purpose of The Justice Project is to initiate and sustain a broad national dialogue on contemporary social justice issues. Mr. Muller and The Justice Project staff were particularly keen to ensure that young people be a vital part of that dialogue.

After months of research, planning, and consultation with arts educators, The Artists' Call for Justice (The Call) was born. We designed the Call as an arts program (not contest) that empowers students, respects the contributions of all participants, and operates transparently. We also go a step further: we seek to motivate new generations of artists to speak out visually on pressing contemporary social issues to be political with their art. This aspect of The Call is inspired by the insights of the social critic Christopher Lasch:

What democracy requires is public debate, not information.... Until we have to defend our opinions in public (italics added) they remain half-formed convictions based on random impressions and unexamined assumptions. It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of "opinions" and gives them shape and definition and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experiences as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.
from The Lost Art of Political Debate
Gannett Center Journal, Spring 1990

The Call's deliberate linking of the artistic with the political is not a new concept. Thomas Nast's anti-corruption cartoons of the post-Civil War years, the heroic murals of the Depression-era Works Program Administration (WPA), and MTV's contemporary "Rock the Vote" ads are all examples of art in the service of democracy. We seek to extend this grand tradition.

The Call is also designed to tap the democracy-building potential of the Internet. This tool is emerging as a means for direct contact between students and their counterparts across communities, indeed, around the globe.

We focused The Call on communication arts students because they tend to be serious about their art and are sufficiently skilled to produce seriously interesting art. In fact each year thousands of communication arts students create phenomenal works in a wide range of media video, photography, animation, fashion, illustration, graphic design, sculpture, crafts, music, film, the web and many others. Yet these works are rarely, if ever, seen by anyone except fellow students and the presiding educators.

Furthermore, several recent studies indicate that students are highly interested in speaking out on culture and politics (see for example the survey Sticking With My Dreams: Defining and Refining Youth Media in the 21st Century by Patricia B. Campbell, Ph.D. et al and funded by the Open Society Institute and the Ford and Surdna Foundations). PDF available at:

We began with a pilot project in the year 2000. Seventy students produced posters in response to the theme "The Voices of Justice." We provided more than 100 quotations by famous historical figures to use as captions for their posters. However, artists were encouraged to find their own quotations and many of them did.

Participating students came from classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rutgers University and Patrick Henry High School in Richmond, Virginia. The Voices of Justice exhibit in our Internet-based Art of Justice Gallery ( shows the stunning results. This response confirmed for us that young artists are capable of producing highly original and professional-quality works. It also proved that student artists are passionate about contemporary issues and can produce visual statements that are powerful and provocative and deserve to be heard.

The pilot project taught us something more: because we integrated the Call into existing communication arts classes, the resulting works were far superior to those usually produced in unguided contests. The presence of a professional communication arts educator and the availability of adequate resources enabled the students to achieve a higher level of sophistication, and by extension, credibility with their work. Furthermore, we believe that this approach offers more opportunities for cross-curricula applications whereby students may integrate The Call into other subject areas such as history, language and area studies, philosophy, journalism, and religion.

The pilot project allowed us to test and refine the technical details and pedagogical considerations before opening The Call to the world as an exclusively Internet-based arts program. Several communication arts instructors and graphic arts professionals served as advisors and helped shape The Call into a relevant program that can be easily integrated into post-secondary communication arts instruction.

The Spring 2002 Artists' Call for Justice was officially rolled out on 15 January 2002. Here are some of its key features:

1. The Call is a public service, not a contest.
The Call does not ask students to do anything that they would not already be doing; instead, it offers them an opportunity to render planned coursework relevant to themselves, their community, and their world. In other words, it provides a context and platform for classroom projects that student artists would be producing, in any event, as a requirement for a grade.

2. It is an on-going program.
The Artists' Call is an annual program, generally opening in late August and running till May. For our first national Call, we are limiting participation to 4,000, but we hope to include larger numbers of artists in subsequent Calls. We make it easy for artists to stay involved. Once artists have registered they do not have to reenter data again in order to participate in subsequent Calls. They are alerted by email of the starting date for the next Call. They can then access their original registration data to update it and submit a new work.

3. Student artists may submit work in a range of media.
For the Spring 2002 Call, the accepted media are: animation, graphic design, photography and video. Future Calls will include additional media categories. For each medium, The Call provides specific technical guidelines, called design parameters that artists must follow. These design parameters are not arbitrary or self-serving. Rather, they set software and file size restrictions, among other things, to provide critical structure for the students, facilitate the submission process, and prevent technical chaos (since all entries must be submitted via the Internet).

4. The Call offers clear content and context guidelines for students who prefer solid direction.
In this first Call student artists may select from five guided design challenges. Each of these guided design challenges aligns with one of the current initiatives of the Justice Project: the death penalty, globalization, land mine issues, liberty and social justice, and nuclear threat reduction. Here is how one guided design challenge is worded:

Create a Justice Service Announcement (this is our newly-minted term for justice-oriented public service announcements) that articulates and refreshes our understanding of what it means to be a nation "with liberty and justice for all." Your primary audience is youth ages 18-25. Use the phrase "With Liberty and Justice for All" as the caption or title of your submission. All text must be in English. Follow all criteria of the Print Design Parameter. Write a Rationale for your work.

5. The Call liberates the capable, independent artist.
Students who prefer less structure may choose the open design challenge, worded thus:

Create a Justice Service Announcement on any social justice topic, for any audience, using any phrase as the caption or title of your submission. You may use a Guided Design Challenge as a departure point, or you may explore any other social justice theme....

Artists responding to the open design challenge must still comply with the design parameters for their chosen medium.

6. Students have complete artistic control of and technical responsibility for their submissions.
The artists themselves decide the medium in which they will work, the theme their work will address, its content, and its focus. At the same time, they must follow specific entry instructions, conform to explicit design parameters, meet stated judging criteria, execute work to deadline, and submit it properly. Together these rights and responsibilities provide an opportunity for students to grow as artists and to develop professional skills.

7. The Call provides student artists and their educators with ample resource support.
The Call's website includes a "Justice Themes & Links" section that leads students to scores of organizational websites with specific background information and graphic ideas. This improves the chances that students will do the research necessary to create an informed work of art.

8. The Call is respectful of the educational calendar.
The Spring 2002 Artists' Call began on 15 January 2002 and ended on 15 May 2002, conforming to a second semester schedule. All future Calls will be equally open in terms of time. We are considering launching them in late August and having it run through May, or perhaps even June. Notices announcing the launch of each annual Call will be distributed well in advance so that interested faculty may include it in their syllabi. Participating student artists will not have to race to complete a project to conform to some sponsor-serving date: rather, they may submit the work when it is complete or when the semester ends.

9. The jury process is honest and open.
Students know in advance the criteria by which their work will be judged. This criteria is explicitly defined and covers originality, concept, craftsmanship, and message. They also know that semifinalist entries will be submitted to a named jury of communication arts experts. Furthermore, judges' comments will be posted so that all participating artists can better understand how the selection process works. Eventually we plan to include several student finalists in juries and to create a "people's choice" category.

10. The Call offers recognition to all qualifying participants.
Every work that meets the entry qualifications will appear in the on-line Art of Justice Gallery. All artists will be prominently credited, with links to their own web pages if they have them. Each artist will be provided with a special URL, to list in a resume, which links visitors directly to his or her art in the Gallery. Finally, every participating artist may download a certificate of participation.

11. The Call offers special recognition to a large number of student artists.
It is a deliberate policy of The Call to avoid creating superstars; therefore, The Call recognizes four hundred student artists as semi-finalists and thirty-six as finalists. There are three tiers of Illumina Awards Platinum, Gold, and Silver, with three finalists in each tier, per medium. The large pool of semi-finalists and finalists downplays competitiveness and allows artists to focus on their work.

12. The Call offers finalists relevant awards.
For the Spring 2002 Call, Illumina finalists receive gift certificates for computer and graphics software purchases ($1,000 Platinum, $500 Gold, $250 Silver). In addition, they receive a year's membership in either the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) or the College Art Association (CAA), and an embroidered Artists' Call for Justice jean jacket.

13. The Call recognizes the important role educators play in the development of the next generation of artists.
As a courtesy, the teacher of every student artist who enters The Call will receive an email notification to that effect. Educators' names are included in the credits for each work in the Art of Justice Gallery, and those names can be linked to the educators' web pages, if they like. We also are building an Educator's Forum at the website where arts educators can share strategies for implementing The Call. Each educator with one or more students selected as an Illumina Award finalist will be honored with an Illumina Teacher Recognition Award for which they receive a $200 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, a year's membership in either the AIGA or CAA, and a jean jacket.

14. Student artists initiate a public dialogue with their work.
Students are invited to write their own rationales captions of one hundred words or more that appear with the artwork. We believe that students often create better art when they are asked to articulate in words their process and intentions. More importantly, this exercise strengthens the connections between their art and their public advocacy. To help students draft their rationales, we provide guidelines and hot links to writing resources. Each student's rationale will accompany his or her artwork in The Art of Justice Gallery and, to the extent possible, in any other venue where the work is displayed. Gallery viewers will be encouraged to email back responses, and these comments will be posted on-line. The aim is to create an Art of Justice Gallery that is alive with conversation on the topic of justice.

15. Student artists will see their works used to advance the public education goals of The Justice Project.
This is the truly groundbreaking part of The Artists' Call for Justice. It presents students with the opportunity to make art not merely for commercial gain or personal acclaim, but also for a moral purpose: for the advancement of democracy and social justice. The Call is creating a forum in which students can leverage their art into advocacy.

This leveraging takes place in two ways. First, all qualifying submissions will be exhibited in the Internet-based Art of Justice Gallery. Each work will be accompanied by the student-written rationale, effectively launching the public conversation about the piece and the issue it addresses. Second, semi-finalist and finalist artwork may be exhibited off-line in public exhibits, reproduced in justice campaign materials such as T-shirts or posters, or shown on television as justice service announcements.

As this article goes to press, the first Call is still underway. Nonetheless, we already are considering ideas for expanding its scope. For example, we may:
- Create a special awards category to accommodate justice-themed student works that fall outside the design parameters of The Call.
- Establish an annual Illumina film/animation/video festival.
- Introduce into the Artists' Call web site video-streamed interviews with acclaimed artists who would discuss how they conceptualize, design, and create their art.
- Expand the awards program to include professional enrichment experiences such as workshop or seminar attendance, internships and professional iteration opportunities.
- Host an annual exhibit of all graphic design and photography finalists' work in Washington, DC, New York City and elsewhere.

Georgia O'Keefe once said: "To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage." We agree. It requires courage to create art, and just as much to speak out publicly and work for democracy. The Call is a forum within which young artists can do all three.

We have intentionally designed the Artists' Call for Justice to be a model program, one that honors artists and supports them meaningfully in all these endeavors. But what truly excites us is its potential to catapult young voices into the emerging public debate on justice-related issues.

About this article
This article was first published in The Responsible Designer (a post-secondary communication arts textbook) and is reprinted with permission. Edited by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne.

About the Author
Dan Walsh is the Director of the Artists' Call for Justice. His is also the CEO of Liberation Graphics, a design firm specializing in service to social activism. He is the founder and director of the Cuba Poster Project, which has received grants from the Arca Foundation and the Funding Exchange to preserve the poster art of contemporary Cuba. Recent writings include articles for Print and School Arts magazines. His work has been widely covered in the press--the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, National Public Radio, Communication Arts, Utne Reader, and many others have published feature stories about his efforts to enrich the political discourse in the US via the visual arts.