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Artists and Activists: Too Addled for 2010?

SANY0027

Manifest Equality, a temporary gallery that is set up this week in the fluorescent lighted space of an old Big Lots near the intersection of Sunset and Vine, is an impressive and even overwhelming display of works from artists ranging from Robbie Conal to Barry McGee, all of whom have contributed pieces with the central message of equal rights for gays and lesbians.

Many in the crowd of young artists and activists, who previewed the gallery on Tuesday in a near-nightclub atmosphere of makeshift bars and deejays, worked as volunteers or even staffers during the Obama campaign. And the gallery itself, organized by a team led by Yosi Sergant, Jennifer Gross and Apple Via, is modeled on ones they did at the Democratic National Convention and inauguration, geared to getting creative types involved in Barack Obama’s candidacy and presidency.

SANY0043 So it was natural to wonder if this energy can or will be harnessed in any way for the volatile midterms. It’s a big question as to whether this year young activists will be drawn more toward issues, like same-sex marriage, than electoral politics, given the gridlock in D.C.Among those surveying the works was Heather Smith, executive director of the nonpartisan Rock the Vote, who said her org was, for the first time, planning a substantial push for registration in a nonpresidential year, no easy task given the disbursed nature of the elections.

Much has been written about the precipitous drop in enthusiasm among younger voters, whether due to disappointment or the inability of Obama’s political arm to tap into this segment. Media interest that once focused on Obama’s netroots has moved on to the tea party’s grassroots.

And to those who have made the leap from campaign activism to government, Washington has been full of fits and starts…and then more fits.

SANY0049 Sergant has run up against the right, in what is a very good example of the perils in shifting from the idealistic campaign environment to the more circumspect world of Washington. Tapped to be communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts last year, his tenure was short-lived after he became a target of Glenn Beck. (The backstory here).

“There is an ebb and a flow where people pull right, they pull left and we walk together down the middle, and sometimes it is more cordial than others and sometimes and sometimes it is above board and sometimes it is illegally tape recorded conversations, and misrepresenting certain things,” said Sergant, smiling a bit in a reference to the NEA flap.

“But it is all part of this give and take of energy of trying to move ourselves forward. And call me naive, call me pie eyed, but I believe in the power of positivity and the power of good and gathering energy of a positive collective to make positive change. I believe that you can scream and holler and write on chalkboards very hateful language and it won’t keep down those of us who are trying to do good.”
 
SANY0047 Before he went to D.C. in 2008, he already had been planning to take the Manifest model and organize artists around issues like healthcare and the environment. But he says that he chose equality as a theme for the gallery after the passage of Proposition 8, noting that he was so engaged in the Obama campaign that “it left a permanent, bittersweet tone to something that was such a powerful positive point in my life.”

“Most people that I talk to, most of my straight friends, this is something they believe in,” he says. “They believe in full and absolute equality for all Americans, for everybody. But they don’t take ownership over this issue. For some reason there is that disconnect over that belief and ownership, and I think that art has a way of inviting people and creating an environment where people feel comfortable speaking out, where people feel comfortable participating.”

Photos from Manifest Equality, which runs through Sunday.

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