Expanding Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated Artists

Expanding Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated Artists
A4J grantee and Right of Return Fellow Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez at the 2022 Right of Return Retreat. Photo by Maurice Sartirana.

Opportunities to enter and thrive in the commercial art world have historically been unequal. This is particularly true for people with lived experience in the criminal legal system, who are often seen as “bad actors” rather than individuals who can grow, change, contribute, and lead. A4J understood the necessity of expanding opportunities for system-impacted artists to promote their work. The Fund recognized formerly incarcerated artists as uniquely positioned to shine a light on injustices within the criminal legal system and offer insights into how this system might be transformed.

A4J’s model of supporting art and advocacy empowered hundreds of system-impacted individuals and organizations led by formerly incarcerated people. Funding their artistic practices and expanding the settings in which their work was seen leveraged the power of art to shift narratives, bear witness, and inspire new pathways to shared safety.

Justice Arts Coalition

Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) is a national network that unites teaching artists, arts advocates, and currently and formerly incarcerated artists harnessing the transformative power of art to reimagine justice. It increases teaching artists’ capacity to implement arts programs, including restorative and transformative justice practices in and around prisons.  In 2022, JAC organized the exhibition Emergence, a group show at Virginia’s Workhouse Arts Center, a former prison site. The Coalition’s goal is to foster an active community of artists and advocates working to end mass incarceration and shift the narrative around criminality.

The majority of the cover page of the report incorporates the image of seven alternating black-and-white stripes in a narrow rounded U-shaped petal-shaped figure with the words
Cover of the JAC report Educating Allies and Empowering Artists in Carceral Spaces. Illustrated by Mark Loughney.

For Freedoms

Founded in 2016 by a coalition of artists, academics, and organizers, For Freedoms is an artist collective that centers art and creativity as a catalyst for transformative connection and liberation. The largest community for creative civic engagement in the U.S., the group aims to build new systems of public engagement that center love, care, and community. In 2022, For Freedoms created a series of billboards as part of the Another Justice: By Any Medium Necessary campaign. Artists, including many A4J grantee partners, were invited to react to the prompt: “What does JUSTICE mean to you?” These billboards went up in 36 cities across the country.

A colorful billboard stands in brownish ranchland. On the billboard, backed by an image of somewhat cloudless blue sky, two figures in colorful clothing reminiscent of armored beadwork are vertically mirrored to create four figures flanking three words at the center of the billboard in all caps and red
For Freedoms billboard campaign (2021-2022). Courtesy of For Freedoms.

Center for Art & Advocacy

In 2016, artists Russell Craig and Jesse Krimes founded the groundbreaking Right of Return Fellowship, the first and only national initiative dedicated to supporting and mentoring formerly incarcerated artists. With the support of A4J, Right of Return expanded its program offerings to become the Center for Art & Advocacy in 2023. The Center’s work encompasses three initiatives: the Right of Return Fellowship, the Academy, and the Residency. Right of Return Fellows include Sherrill Roland, Michelle Jones, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Mary Baxter to name a few.

In front of a projector screen with the title
Right of Return fellows gather at Art for Justice Fund grantee convening in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Maurice Sartirana.