Typically, when 60-odd artists and art professionals gather together, an opening reception or art fair is in the offing. But yesterday morning in New York—a cold, drizzly day—just such a group was gathering at Karma gallery in the East Village to do something a bit different. A Greyhound bus was on hand, about to take them to canvass for Democratic candidates running in today’s midterm elections.
Similar scenes were playing out elsewhere in the city at the same time: in total, eight New York–based galleries and artists’ studios (including Bortolami, CANADA, and Carol Bove and Gordon Terry) had joined forces with the political organizations Downtown For Democracy and Swing Left to whisk art-world denizens to swing districts around New York and New Jersey. Their cause was to help the art world “swing left,” as an invitation put it. (Conveniently, most gallery workers have Mondays off.)
The Karma gang was specifically set to advocate for Max Rose, who’s trying to knock off Republican Daniel M. Donovan, Jr. to represent New York’s 11th Congressional District, which encompasses all of conservative Staten Island as well as outer Brooklyn. “I think everyone is trying to find different ways that they can chip in,” Brendan Dugan, Karma’s owner, said, just before boarding the bus. “So even just little things like this are important, I think.”
Inside Karma, which is currently between shows, the mood was buoyant, as volunteers—almost all of them women—mingled over cartons of coffee and sesame bagels. Among those on hand was Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson, who sported an “I volunteered!” pin.
Dugan pointed out that Karma has a history of making political statements—it previously commissioned, through Downtown For Democracy, Richard Prince to make a print about Donald Trump’s alleged history of sexual abuse, and sold the work in its gallery space. Yesterday’s event offered the gallery a more direct way to intervene in the political arena. “It was such an easy way for the gallery to be involved—we really didn’t have to do much,” he said. “We had some coffee and some bagels, and allowed [the gallery] to be the rallying point.”
On the ground in Staten Island, everyone got to work, wearing T-shirts printed with two minimal black spots and the date of today’s election. They were designed by Marlene McCarty, a member of Karma’s bus. McCarty knows a thing or two about activism, having been part of the group Gran Fury, which began making incisive work about the AIDS Crisis in 1988. “I started being an artist when it was a time all about ‘no content’ in art,” McCarty said. “It had to be big and quiet, and speak for itself. . . . My whole life, I’ve been trying to get content and politics and art to meet each other.”
Over the course of three hours, Karma’s band of supporters knocked on 1,136 doors and found 403 people who said they’d be voting for the blue team on Election Day. Then they repaired back to the gallery’s East Village storefront for celebratory drinks. Deirdre Swords said over a beer, “I’m an artist, and my calling is very much about building a bridge between art and social justice. So I’m very glad this is happening. I hope that it’s just the beginning of the two worlds coming together.”