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Harris Viewpoints: J. Gibran Villalobos (CLA'20) on Art, Citizenship, and the 2020 Election

As a part of Harris Public Policy’s coverage of the 2020 election in conjunction with the Center for Effective Government, we reached out to other experts in the field to share their perspective on the 2020 election. These are their opinions and perspectives, informed by their life experiences and worldviews (and do not necessarily reflect the views of Harris).

A lot of people are calling this election the “most important of our lifetime.” What’s most at stake in this election, and what makes this one different from past ones?

This election is framed as the most important of our lifetime because it is a concentrated node of the many critical emergencies that touch all of us on an individual level. Yet, these urgencies demand that we as individuals coalesce into a recognizable mass–but what does it mean to be a voting American today? The outcome of this election will be an historical marker that dictates who we are and who we will become as Americans. Who we become in the future hinges on this moment. The choices that will be made about how we are allowed to live our lives will be decided by this moment. Although this is also true for past elections, what is different for this election is that our individual attachment has become more personalized. The current administration has conspicuously pursued policies that severely impact our private lives. Disinvestment in health services during a pandemic, loosening of nature preserve regulations during a climate crisis, the prohibition of funds that support diversity education during a time of racial unrest. Our daily lives are affected by the nature of these issues.

With the continual uncovering of systemic injustices, we are all feeling more like the direct targets of unjust policies. This election is different because as more and more is revealed about who gets to benefit from this election, the more we see how much our definition of citizenship is in jeopardy. We have all had to respond to this election with an enormous sense of responsibility because it will define our future, but also, because it will reassemble how we understand our past. Who, and how, one gets to be considered a participant in future American democracy is held within the process of this election.

How might the election impact your work in the Chicago civic space? What, if anything, have you been doing this cycle to make those impacts clear to those you work with?

The nature of contemporary art is that it is always changing; it is constantly shifting to reveal and conceal aspects of our life to show us the “bigger picture.” Our current civic unrest is producing a cultural sector that is asking sharp questions that sting at systems that have become stagnant. Let me be clear and not get lost in metaphor: the current election is troubled by misinformation and misleading narratives that imply that the U.S. is fine; however, more lives have been unnecessarily lost due to a pandemic run rampant due to a weak national health plan. The economic well-being of many has crumbled under the piecemeal gig economy. In this, cultural workers are often the first to feel the effects of failing systems as they are often the least supported: they are the first to be cut from budgets, lose employment, and health support. They are the canaries in the coal mines, as they detect failing systems. It is in our interest to listen to their alarms.

In my work, I have shifted towards more directly closing the perception that contemporary art and Chicago civic life is disconnected. I am putting artists in public conversations with directors of organizations that tackle economic disparity. I have directors of civic agencies write the interpretation labels of artworks in our galleries. Although seemingly these are minor gestures, this urges cultural institutions to more actively participate in the civic life of Chicagoans, and to give platform to artists that tell those stories. Culture contains many properties, among them, it is the ability to recognize and reimagine a more just future for all.

About J. Gibran Villalobos

J. Gibran Villalobos (CLA'20) currently works as Assistant Curator in Performance and Public Practice at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. In 2017, Gibran launched an inaugural summit of Latinx artists and administrators across the U.S. In 2019, he was awarded the Field Foundation Leaders for a New Chicago Award as well as the Americans for the Arts Leaders of Color Fellowship. Gibran serves on the Auxiliary Board for the National Museum of Mexican Art and Chicago Artists Coalition Board of Directors. He is faculty lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Arts Administration & Policy. Gibran holds a BA in Art History and a BS in Public Relations from Northern Arizona University and an MA in Arts Administration & Policy and an MA in Modern Art History & Theory from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a member of the 2020 cohort of the Civic Leadership Academy at the Center for Effective Government based at Harris.


The news release above was originally published by the Harris School of Public Policy.