The Irony and Disdain of Obama’s ‘Art Works’ Campaign

Art Works poster design

On September 8, 2011, millions tuned in to Obama’s presentation the American Jobs Act. The following month, Obama stated that “without a doubt, the most urgent challenges that we face right now is getting our economy to grow faster and to create more jobs… where [Congress] won’t act, I will.”

So why then, would the Obama re-election campaign call on graphic designers to show their support for the American Jobs Act by soliciting them to work for free? Through a contest titled Art Works, “a poster contest to support American jobs”, designers were asked to submit poster designs promoting the American Jobs Act with one major catch: no compensation for their work.

It’s both ironic and offensive that a campaign for job creation would call on design professionals to work without compensation. This crowdsourcing effort by Obama’s re-election campaign shows a severe misunderstanding of the very real problems design industry professionals face. Employment in the graphic design industry plunged over ten percent between 2008 and 2009, dropped an additional six percent between 2009 and 2010 and at the time of this writing remains well below pre-recession levels.

Both the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the Graphic Artists Guild have shown a persistent criticism of the Art Works contest in open letters written to the Obama for America campaign:

“The Obama For America re-election campaign contest, ‘Art Works: A poster contest to support American jobs,’ is shameful. American artists should be outraged that our President does not recognize that we are entitled to be paid for our work, as are all Americans.” (Lisa Shaftel, Graphic Artists Guild).

“The Art Works poster contest asks designers to work speculatively, creating designs without compensation for an activity that has value to a potential client, against established global principles in communication design. And it is particularly contemptuous to ask the creative community to donate their services in support of a jobs program for other American workers.” (Richard Grefé, AIGA)
Maybe the Obama re-election campaign and his administration would benefit from a brief history lesson. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed approximately 500 artists to work on the Federal Art Project (FAP) programs. These artists were charged with raising awareness and promoting a wide range of programs, activities and behaviors that administration believed would improve people’s lives – similar to the goals proposed in the American Jobs Act and by Obama’s re-election campaign. WPA Poster Division artists – all which were given pay and credit for their work – designed more than 35,000 posters and approximately two million were printed.
These artists/designers were all valued for their skills. Why then, has the value of American designers’ work changed for the worse?

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