The artists who are giving George Bush the brush-off

From 'guerrilla' painters to well-heeled gallery owners, America's artistic community is pouring its energy into the campaign to elect John Kerry. David Usborne reports from New York
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It may come as no surprise to learn that the arts community in New York and elsewhere in the United States is mostly liberal-leaning and would be happier to see John Kerry than George Bush inaugurated as the next President in 2005. But, more than ever before, painters, gallery owners, dealers and collectors are putting enormous energies, and dollars, into fighting the Democratic candidate's corner.

We are not just talking about so-called guerrilla artists, like the graffiti-inspired poster painter Mear One, who are deploying their works to raise money for Democrat causes ahead of the 2 November election. Even some well-heeled galleries in Manhattan, who might normally be concerned about alienating wealthy Republican clients, are choosing to wear their election hopes and fears on their sleeves.

New fund-raising laws mean that private groups cannot deliver money directly to the candidates any more. Well-publicised loop-holes do make it possible, however, to funnel unlimited dollars towards the broader party and to very important causes like get-out-the vote drives to support Mr Kerry.

The Cheim & Reid gallery in west Chelsea, one of the city's most prestigious spaces, for instance, hosted to a Democratic fund-raiser in July this year, regardless of the risk of earning a political reputation Republican customers might not like.

"This is the most important election of my lifetime," gallery owner John Cheim told TheArtNewspaper.com. "If people choose not to patronise the gallery because of our political affiliation, then so be it." The gallery conceded that it had already lost one client, who had previously spent over $1m with them.

One action group with a broad membership of artists and creative professionals, Democratic Victory 04, held a highly successful fund-raising auction in June at the Manhattan branch of the Philips, de Pury & Co art auction house. Dubbed 'Buy art, bye bye Bush', the event raised over $2.1m. The dealer Larry Gagosian and the Canadian architect, Frank Gehry, donated a sculpture valued at $1m.

The co-chairman of the sale, artist Chuck Close, said: "I'd like regime change. The administration is on the wrong course, I have feelings about the illegitimacy of the presidency and about the illegitimacy of the war. This regime is taking away people's rights in the name of homeland security. Our basic civil rights, freedom of expression and freedom of speech, among several other issues, are at risk."

Works offered at the auction, whose honourary chairwoman was the actress Meryl Streep, came from a wide range of well-known artists that included Richard Artschwager, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Chuck Close, Richard Diebenkorn, Jim Dine, Jane Frielicher, Nan Goldin, Jenny Holzer, Ellsworth Kelly, Louise Lawler, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Claes Oldenburg, Doug & Mike Starn, Frank Stella, and Ed Ruscha.

Financial disclosures, meanwhile, show that Robert Rauschenberg is among private donors to Democratic Victory 04. The American pop artist is shown to give the group $71,000. A larger donation of $240,000 has come from Johanna Liesbeth de Kooning.

Another group co-sponsoring the auction was America Coming Together, dedicated to raising as much money this year for Democratic candidates and voter drives. It is principally funded by Peter B. Lewis, a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and by the billionaire financier, George Soros.

Brooklyn-based action group Downtown for Democracy, or D4D, has a full schedule of art-related fund-raising events for the Democratic party. Among its initiatives was to sponsor the marketing and exhibition of a poster drawn in spray paint by Mear One that shows President Bush in demonic, militaristic mode, with the words: "Let's Play Armegeddon". Another shows a picture of Mr Bush with the flaming Twin Towers erupting from his forehead.

The rock icon Lou Reed will top the bill at a fundraiser for D4D next week at Cooper Union in downtown Manhattan next Tuesday. Called "Joyful in November", the gala evening - tickets are $40 each - is designed to energise supporters ahead of the election. Other performers include Bill T. Jones, Lisa Kron, The Lynne Cheney Players, Will Power and Carmelita Tropicana.

And tomorrow night, D4D, will be presenting the premier of a new film by John Sayles. Called Silver City, it a tale of political intrigue featuring a fictional and verbally challenged gubernatorial candidate in the American West, played by Chris Cooper. Daryl Hannah also stars in the film.

Other musicians are pulling their weight for the Democrat contender on the so-called "Vote for Change Tour", a series of rock concerts that will double as get-out-the-vote drives.

Among the groups and rock stars signed up for the high-wattage tour are Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, REM and the Dixie Chicks.

Los Angeles-based artist Robbie Conal heads a so-called guerrilla postering effort, dedicated to plastering the public spaces of America with his artwork ridiculing President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. One of his best-known posters, which are similar in style to those by Mear One, show a grim-faced Bush beneath the message: "Read my Apocolips".

"The postering we do is legal," Conal noted. "It's a form of civil disobedience" He launched similar campaigns against the first President Bush and against Ronald Reagan. "This is a very street way of communication, unmediated by the media," the artist commented. "It's like rap art. The essence of it is resistance. The people I paint are so powerful, and this is an expression of people who are not so powerful."

Back in the more rarefied climes of Manhattan's gallery district, another well-known gallery, the James Cohan Gallery - currently home to a solo exhibition of Wim Wenders' photographs - recently sponsored a so-called phone-bank party in its large 26th Street space.

The Cohan event, dubbed a "phonathon", was sponsored by the prominent Democratic action group, Moveon.org, largely supported by Mr Soros. For a whole Saturday, about 40 volunteers invaded the gallery and cold-called, on their mobile phones, registered Republican voters in swing states and tried to persuade them that Kerry would be the better choice.

"We have been uncharacteristically active for a private business - James supports John Kerry and hasn't been afraid to say that," confirmed the gallery manager, Liorah Brown, yesterday. "We all pretty much feel that in the gallery. In fact, it has been sort of surprising the number of galleries that have been quite vocal this time to support John Kerry."

The James Cohan gallery, which is close by Cheim & Reid, has even taken the highly unusual step of taking out a political advertisement in next month's issue of Art Review magazine in support of John Kerry, with a quote from the candidate chosen by Mr Cohan.

Right next door is White Box gallery, which has also been vocal in its effort to back Mr Kerry and in its opposition to President Bush, with frequent events and stalls on the pavement to encourage New Yorkers to vote - and vote Democrat - in November.

"We have been very surprised," said Esa Nickle, the manager of White Box, talking about the anti-Bush activity in the gallery community.

The gallery had a voter registration party in May, as well as a tongue-in-cheek exhibition that ran through August and early September, poking fun at the Republican National Convention held recently in New York. It featured a huge installation, including balloons and confetti, by poster artist Kyle Goen. All summer he has been pasting one of his political posters, entitled "Elect a Madman, you get Madness", in different American cities.

The gallery also helped support sculptor Karin Giusti, who created a Greenhouse on wheels, shaped like the White House, and designed to lampoon President Bush and his environmental policies. It was erected on a trailer and Ms Giusti towed it from the back of a pick-up truck to Texas and other southern states.

In late October, White Box will be hosting another large Kerry fund-raiser and opening a new exhibition called "Democracy is Fun!?".

And, as well as artists, gallery owners and rock stars, there has been no shortage of Hollywood stars trying to be heard. Whoopi Goldberg summed up the arts community's dedication to the cause after she was was dumped as Slim-Fast's spokes-woman after making sexual puns about Mr Bush at a $10-million, star-studded fund-raising gala for Mr Kerry at New York's Radio City Music Hall earlier this summer.

"I must do what I need to do as an artist, as a writer and an American - not to mention as a comic."

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