A billboard campaign to encourage civic engagement
As the 2020 census comes to a close and we await the resulting information and actions, local artists here in Jacksonville can proudly know that they had a voice in urging participation during an incredibly complicated year. This important nationwide count every 10 years dictates the distribution of funding that will affect virtually every sector of life—hospitals, first responders, emergency services, affordable housing, food assistance, schools, childcare, public transportation, road repairs, and more. It also determines each state’s power in the electoral college by determining its seats in the House of Representatives.
For every person who abstains from the census, there is an estimated $2,000 loss per year to their community. In other words, when you fill out your census, each person in each household brings $20,000 into their community over the next 10 years. This startling statistic fuels the Art+Action campaign, a group that reaches out to communities with initiatives to encourage census participation. Art+Action utilizes the power of communication and information sharing with art as its vehicle. Art+Action’s Come To Your Census campaign keeps messaging local, recruiting artists within each participating community to create large-scale artwork on the importance of census participation.
Local artist, gallery owner, and arts advocate Shawana Brooks, who is behind the 6 Ft. Away Gallery and the Color Jax Blue mural project, joined Art+Action and recruited local artists to create artwork for billboards that would help disseminate information on and incite inspiration for filling out the 2020 census. For Come To Your
Census, Jacksonville, painter Marsha Hatcher and photographer Toni Smailagic were chosen to create pieces that are now on billboards, visible from Interstate 295. Hatcher’s is three quarters of a mile north of Blanding Boulevard and Smailagic’s is a mile and a quarter south of 103rd Street.
Smailagic’s photograph was taken at the Women’s March, during a charged time, marked by back-to-back protests in Jacksonville. “It is a surreal experience seeing [the billboard] in person,” says Smailagic, who documented the billboards for the campaign.
We asked Brooks about what led her to this new project, how it has progressed, and what is next.
How did you first become involved with Art+Action?
I was initially introduced by Art in Public Places Director Glenn Weise. Art+Action was looking to find people who were actively involved with local artists in their community. They wanted help spreading the word on their call to produce one billboard in the Jacksonville community. I made sure to speak about the immense diversity of talented artists we have in Northeast Florida. After expounding on my business 6 Ft. Away and the work we were doing with our mixed media voting awareness campaign, Color Jax Blue, they decided to select more than one artist. After several entries, they decided upon artists Marsha Hatcher and Toni Smailagic.
Art+Action calls the completion of the census “a form of activism and resistance.” Do you agree? Is there anything you would add to that?
I think it is regretful how politicized the census has become this year. This is something that comes around every 10 years and the ability for people to participate exists as long as they are living in this country and participating in their communities. I think that is an encouraging fact that’s getting missed. Yes, I very much agree that is something that should rev up activists. Everyone having the ability to be counted and represented used to be a big part of a democratic nation. As an artist-activist, I think it’s important to speak about art’s role in any form of resistance. It’s a mirror for truth. The truth is that many communities of color miss out on this funding due to lack of awareness and miseducation. I don’t want people to feel intimidated, but rather, inspired. I know art can help elicit those feelings because I witness it daily.