Denver City Hall

Form & Function: When Art and Activism Intersect

August 31, 2020

The College of Arts & Media (CAM) at CU Denver has invited artist and community organizer Katie Leonard to serve as Activist-in-Residence for the 2020 – 2021 academic year. Leonard, who recently graduated from Harvard with a BA in African American studies, is a Denver native who identifies as a Black woman, an artist, and a writer. She works at the intersection of art and justice, which is exactly why CAM Dean Laurence Kaptain reached out to her.

Kaptain, who holds a Doctor of Musical Arts and is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (FRSA), is also a former Fulbright Scholar to Mexico. His cross-cultural perspective on the arts includes a focus on community. “The College of Arts & Media holds a unique place in Denver, the region, the nation, and the world,” he said. “We are a public institution offering programs in creative industries—almost all comparable institutions are private with very high tuition—so we have a unique role to provide opportunities for a broad socio-economic population,” he added.

Leonard believes context and content are interrelated. Art is not created in a vacuum, in other words. “Being an artist myself, I was always curious about the potential of artistic mediums to move a 21st-century Black liberation movement.” She co-founded the Anti-Racist Club of Colorado in June as a response to the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police. One of their first events was a public pop-up gallery held in front of Denver’s City Hall, featuring a collection of art that responded to this question: What would it look like to re-imagine public safety?

woman participating in Anti-Racist Club public gallery
In June 2020, the Anti-Racist Club co-founded by Katie Leonard held an interactive community gallery in front of Denver City Hall. Photo by CBS.
portrait of Katie Leonard
Activist-in-Residence Katie Leonard

“We’re in a public safety crisis,” Leonard said. “Safety goes beyond surveillance and security. It’s also about having a home to live in, having adequate access to food and water,” she added. The mission of the Anti-Racist Club is to battle systemic racism through education and civic engagement. Thousands of people participated in the event, including Dean Kaptain, and all the Denver City Council members came to view and listen to art by Denver community members.

While Leonard combines her art and activism, she believes that art can change society even without intentionality. “Someone sitting down at their easel with a very specific message is rare,” she said. “Really, all forms of art have always played a humongous role in progress and the movements toward justice.” An example she likes to use is the final breaking point for what ended the transatlantic slave trade, which was an illustration of a slave ship—”It took this visual component, people being able to see people stacked on top of each other.”

By partnering with Leonard, Kaptain is taking advantage of this moment in history and “exploring the potential of emerging areas of public consciousness,” as he said. Since CU Denver’s new Chancellor, Michelle Marks, PhD, has made equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) an important part of her agenda, Kaptain believes Leonard’s appointment is a great opportunity for students. “As dean, I believe that we need to provide the pathways for our students to advance their learning, both by word and personal example, to examine and challenge cultural and social barriers, to record through their art the vibrant dynamics of our society, and to recognize their own accountability as active and necessary contributors to this culture,” Kaptain explains.

anti-racist club event at Denver City Hall
Participants at the Anti-Racist Club event used art to answer this question: What would it look like to re-imagine public safety? Photo by CBS.

Leonard hopes to work directly with students “in an inclusive and collaborative process, motivated by transformative justice.” The recent Black Lives Matter protests have activated people everywhere, including in downtown Denver where CU Denver is located, to discuss the issue of equality in this country. Leonard hopes that in CAM, she can work with students to develop actionable plans that go beyond rhetoric. “There is a lot of surface-level engagement in EDI in progressive spaces,” she said. “It’s often difficult because of under-the-surface racial tension … It’s a lot of pandering and symbolic gestures and then a guarded backpedal,” she continued.

Kaptain hopes the Activist-in-Residence collaboration with Leonard will generate change: “My expectation is to move past the talking stage and to activate the power of our artists, creators, designers, and scholars to enact real change.”

Whatever the medium (film, visual art, music), CU Denver students will represent their social, cultural, and historical consciousness in their art. Leonard hopes the result is transformative. “I think the potential for art to do good is limitless,” she said.