Author Spotlight: A Conversation with Ken Grossinger

Dora U.
Thursday, August 3, 2023
Ken Grossinger has had an impressive career as an organizer, activist, and mentor to young movement workers. In his newly published book Art Works: How Organizers and Artists Are Creating a Better World Together, he looks at the intersection between art and politics—specifically how organizers and artists can effectively collaborate to generate social change. 
When I sat down with Ken, we discussed his writing process and the inspiration behind Art Works. Ken’s goals for publishing were to encourage artists, activists, students, curators, and philanthropists to expand their mindset beyond isolating protest and art, and consider how uniting different aspects of organizers can be beneficial. 
You’ve had a long career working on the business side of philanthropy—what aspects of your career history made you want to write a book? 
Ken Grossinger: The intersection of art and social justice is not an intersection that has been well developed in philanthropy, and the bulk of it really started only about fifteen years ago. My background is as an organizer. When I learned how to organize, practiced organizing, and taught younger organizers how to organize, art and culture were never a part of it. What I learned from CrossCurrents – which funds at the intersection of arts and social justice - was that it wasn’t just organizers who didn’t think strategically about art, but that many artists didn’t think strategically about using their work in service to social movements. I saw a big, important gap that was missing; the book is meant to help fill that gap. 
What was the research and writing process like for you?
KG: I had been talking about writing this book for five or six years. My wife is an artist, so I was inspired by how she thinks about organizing. The foundation is really a marriage of our passions, hers being art and mine being social justice, and it wasn’t until I understood the way she thought about art that I could really write this book. I thought I could glean the most from people who were doing the work I wanted to write about. 
I purposefully didn’t take a historical approach. I took a contemporary approach by talking with artists and organizers who were alive in an attempt to recount their experiences with collaboration.
In Chapter 2, “Singing for Our Lives,” you discuss musicians’ engagement with protesting the exploitative Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. How can artists balance bringing attention to an issue and lifting often silenced voices without overstepping? 
KG: What I try to demonstrate in that chapter is that there is an artificial division between the artists and the community. A lot of artists are organizers and activists themselves, and a lot of organizers naturally embrace art. Pebble Mine is an example of fishermen who said, “we are missing a boat.” It was not a boat to catch salmon, but a political boat. When they brought Si Kahn up there, they introduced him to the community, not the machinery of their twenty-year fight. 
How does large-scale community investment in a movement, art installation, or cultural moment extend the life span of a sociopolitical intervention? How has the community of Bristol Bay continued their efforts?
KG: The indigenous community in Bristol Bay makes up 65 percent of the population, and it was really their fight against the mining corporation. Culture is an immense part of the indigenous world, and so it wouldn’t be conceivable to separate out the two. What was seen at Bristol Bay was the emergence of an alliance between the fishing industry, community, and environmentalists, who realized they were missing cultural strategies. It is often the case that art is not the trigger, but it is the people in the community that drive change. 


“I think it’s dysfunctional to separate out artists. I had a big argument the other night with a fine art fan who did not consider art created with the intention of spreading a political message to be real art. I hope my book demonstrates that that’s not true, but that artists have always brought their skills to issues that are important to them.”

In Chapter 5: “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” you dive into the ways museum curators can expand their reach and diversify their audience. How do you see individual artists making similar efforts to increase engagement and debate across widespread communities? 
KG: A lot of artists have pulled their work out of exhibitions to make this point. At the convergence of this history coming up against Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t only politically conceptual, but it was on the streets, and I think the power of Black Lives Matter accelerated that process enormously. For people like me and artists inclined to move in this direction, there was a huge wave of support. I think there are different comfort levels museums and curators have with what I wrote. 
Curators are relatively liberal in their viewpoints so would be predisposed to consider diverse exhibitions, but it is often unclear how much power the executives and the board have.
Since writing this book, is there a specific project or piece of art you referenced that has really stuck with you?
KG: It has all stuck with me, because the dynamics that take place in every chapter, with the exception of the historical discussion of the civil rights movement, are alive and well. I think about them all, all the time. Every chapter, specifically the roundtable at the end, has had a lot of resonance with me. I feel very strongly about what I wrote and return to it often.
How has your intense work dissecting projects changed your own perspective and impacted your political opinions?
KG: It deepened my commitment to cultural strategies, beyond what I originally thought. As an organizer, I knew cultural strategies mattered, but now I think cultural strategies are inextricable from community and labor organizing strategies. If you only touch the mind and not the heart, political messaging can only go so far. 
What drew you to The New Press as a publisher and community?
KG: Initially, it was Diane Wachtell. I had no idea which publisher I was going to go with, but ultimately I felt like The New Press had a handle on art and politics in a way other publishers don’t, and they reached an audience I wanted to reach. I trusted that people like Diane Wachtell and Marc Favreau, who are brilliant at what they do, understood my vision.
You discussed earlier the reader group TNP targets. What is your intended audience?
KG: I have four or five. First is the artists, to reinforce or make the case anew about their role in social movements. Second  is the organizing community, to expose them to new thinking about cultural strategies they had not raised historically. Third is students and academia, because I wanted the subject to be taught. 
Fourth is philanthropy, because of the disproportionate impact they have on what their grantees do; I thought they needed to deal with how they can support and disrupt strategies for social change. One example I talk about in the book is Mel Chin, who wanted to remediate lead-poisoned soil in New Orleans. He had to make a decision about whether he wanted to pitch philanthropies for money for art or organizing. Philanthropy is often siloed; they don’t naturally support collaboration between art and organizing. 
Those were my four primary audiences, but the museum world has recently emerged as a fifth audience I reach. 
How is Art Works well served by a public-interest publisher?
KG: I don’t know that I would draw a line around the public-interest publisher—I think it’s about the chemistry between the publishing house principles and the author. I saw the team at The New Press as a treasure, who gave me total encouragement. It was a very iterative learning process for all of us, and a fruitful collaboration. 
– Written by Dora Usdan, a summer 2023 intern
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Art Works