The Wex, Orange Barrel Media partner on Art for Action voting campaign

Joel Oliphint
The "Art for Action" campaign on one of Orange Barrel Media's IKE screens in the Short North.

Last year, the Wexner Center presented the work of artist Jenny Holzer as part of an exhibition titled “Here.” Some of the pieces were displayed off-site, and for that, Holzer and the Wex partnered with Orange Barrel Media, an agency that specializes in large-scale, digital and nontraditional outdoor advertising.

Recently, Orange Barrel CEO Pete Scantland said Holzer reached out with an idea related to the coming election. “She had written new artwork that was about encouraging people to vote, and she wanted to run it in Pittsburgh and North Carolina,” Scantland said. “As our conversations evolved, we decided, let's make it bigger than that and run it across our whole nationwide footprint. ... But also, let's think about how to broaden the perspective by inviting additional artists, as well.”

The idea morphed into Art for Action, a nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote campaign appearing on 500 screens in 16 cities and featuring the work of Holzer, Carrie Mae Weems, Jeffrey Gibson, Tomashi Jackson and more. Locally, Dionne Custer Edwards, the Wexner Center’s director of learning and public practice, expanded the initiative to include Columbus artists such as Adam Hernandez, Stephanie Rond, Lisa McLymont, David Butler and others.

While the visuals from the various artists are meant to be thought-provoking, Scantland wanted passersby to do more than ponder. He wanted concrete action, and to promote that, the initiative would have to empower viewers with the information they needed to register and to vote.

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“The thing we thought was missing in a lot of the get-out-the-vote efforts and a lot of the discussion around the election was, practically speaking, creating a sense of urgency to register to vote by mail. How do you go and do it? So a lot of our campaign is around customization for each voting jurisdiction. We were surprised to find that, for example, in some states the registration deadline could be very different than other states,” Scantland said. “We created a countdown clock so that people knew when they need to register in each state. Our hope is that through a combination of the inspiring messages from the artists and our call to action, we can get more people to participate.”

Orange Barrel estimates the campaign is reaching a daily audience of more than 3 million people and a total audience of more than 100 million. The agency’s interactive “IKE Smart City” kiosks are ideal for providing information to potential voters, but all the various digital billboard designs and styles proved to be a logistical challenge.

"It was an insane amount of work, because it's running on 500 different screens, some of which have the same proportions and specifications, but some don't,” Scantland said. “What we ended up with was more than 1,000 unique files, and we wrote software that automated the countdown to the various deadlines, so we had to customize that for each market, as well.”

The crossover with the Wexner Center was a natural fit, particularly given the Wex’s current Tomashi Jackson exhibition, “Love Rollercoaster,” which explores ideas about voting and inequities in the democratic process.

Custer Edwards also thought critically about which local artists to include. “We wanted to identify artists that we thought could really speak to this campaign in a way that felt authentic to their own practice,” she said. “Stephanie Rond does this kind of art that shows up in the public space, and the content of her work made a lot of sense. David Butler can also work that way. He's a brilliant painter, but you're also liable to encounter his work on the side of a building with a mural. And David is painting towards these ideas of identity and freedom and liberation and equity.”

“We've always focused on working with artists and arts institutions, and in the last couple of years that has taken on a new urgency — even before COVID — with people realizing that museums sometimes reach a pretty rarefied audience," Scantland said. "Despite the good intentions of art museums to broaden that, there's a lot of folks who just aren't engaging with the artwork inside of the museum setting. So we've been really excited to partner with artists to bring their work out into public space and present it in a very democratic, very egalitarian way. Institutions like the Wexner Center realize that and are starting to see their work as engaging with the community beyond their four walls.”

And for the Wex, which recently provided voter registration forms in its Free Space gallery and offered to mail museum-goers' correspondence to their elected officials, Art for Action was the perfect combination of art and civics. “It involves looking, reflecting, but there's also an actionable element,” Custer Edwards said. “The hope is to harness that energy and to garner an interest to take part in a civic process — to be civically engaged, and to consider how art might be a part of that conversation about civic engagement.”