The Art for Justice Fund has provided a major grant to the newly launched Center for Art and Advocacy as it ends its own six-year initiative to support reform of the criminal justice system.
The center, which also has the support from the Mellon Foundation and an ongoing capital campaign, is a multifaceted, artist-led initiative that will provide resources, training, and support to emerging artists who were formerly incarcerated.
“Art for Justice has really catalyzed and built this amazing community of artists and advocates all across the country. It felt very important that once they sunset that we have an organization that can step in and help to maintain some of the relationships that have been built,” says Jesse Krimes, the center’s executive director. “With this grant, we’re going to be able to expand our work fairly drastically.”
The center builds on the Right of Return Fellowship, which was co-founded in 2016 by Krimes and another formerly incarcerated artist, Russel Craig, in partnership with the Brooklyn-based Soze Agency, to support and mentor artists working across disciplines, including writing and film. Six artists annually have received US$20,000 each, allowing them to work on projects “that reflect the humanity of criminalized and incarcerated people and build public will for ambitious and visionary change,” according to the program.
The grant from Art for Justice—a project of the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that was founded by philanthropist Agnes Gund—will allow for a significant expansion of this initiative to artists throughout all stages of their careers. It will include training and professional development to emerging artists through “the Academy,” in addition to an artist residency program in northeastern Pennsylvania. The residency will open next year to serve former Right of Return fellows and Academy participants.
Together, these efforts should allow the center to expand from serving six artists a year to up to 200, says Krimes, the center’s executive director.
“That’s a significant scaling up in our reach,” he says.
This work is crucial, he says, because the artists they are working with have lost up to decades of their lives to prison. That’s meant they also lost access to a creative, artistic community and to basic skills, such as how to use a computer or navigate the internet.
“We are looking at ourselves as creating and laying the foundation for our artists to be able to enter into the main art world,” Krimes says. “We are trying to fill some of these gaps that have been created over the decades of losing that type of community of support, and building that community of support out through the organization.”
The need for the expansion became apparent as the fellowship was regularly receiving applications from talented artists who didn’t have the education and tools to create a project in a public space or partner with advocates, Krimes says.
“The prison system is very much designed to hold people back. It’s designed to put up barriers, designed to treat people like they’re disposable,” Krimes says. “In my mind it’s like, ‘how do we actually create the systems and structures that can help people move forward with their lives, with the things that they care about, things that they are interested in, and really build out the exact opposite of the prison system.”
The Academy is intended to provide some of this missing structure with curriculum and mentorship, allowing the center to work with more artists and “to create a pathway into the fellowship for others,” he says.
Krimes, of course, knows the issues facing these artists first hand. He served a nearly six-year sentence on drug-related charges a year after graduating with a degree in studio art from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. That degree gave him a lifeline in prison that he pursued by stealthily creating a 40-foot mural made of prison bed sheets, New York Times clippings, soap, and hair gel, as detailed in the 2022 MTV Films documentary Art & Krimes by Krimes.
The experience also made him recognize how his education set him apart from many incarcerated individuals. Since leaving prison in 2013, Krimes’ art has been widely exhibited and collected, and he’s won several fellowships, including one from the Art for Justice Fund.
Initially, the Academy will work out of the center’s new Brooklyn headquarters (which also houses an exhibition and venue space), bringing former Right of Return fellows alongside curators, collectors, and established artists, to facilitate workshops and classes. Artists Rashid Johnson, Titus Kaphar, Hank Willis Thomas, and Mickalene Thomas—who donated works to a November 2022 Christie’s auction in support of the center—are among its partners.
“There’s going to be a lot of different levels of interaction and engagement throughout the art world because we are trying to provide a very rounded experience for people,” Krimes says. Eventually, the academy will expand to participating museums and other arts institutions across the country.
The residency will be aimed at artists who have been through the academy, or have received a fellowship, to explore different artistic practices such as working with bronze or printmaking. Stays can be short- or long-term. “A lot of the artists we work with have an ambition to work in different mediums and explore new techniques,” he says.
Krimes, himself, continues to find time to make work. Lately he’s been creating pieces by layering image transfers, painting, and embroidery over textiles and fragments of clothing from people who are currently or formerly incarcerated that he pieces together into a larger surface.
“It’s a very layered, textured surface of embroidery, which covers over some of the printed images and the painted images,” he says. “They’re simultaneously a bit abstract while having moments and pockets of representational imagery embedded within them.”
While many artists involved in the center’s programming will draw from their experience with the justice system as they create, there’s no requirement that they do so, he says. “There is a power in letting artists and creatives just make the work that they want to make.”
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