Northland Poster shows strong link between art and activism


The massive show of support to save Northland Poster Collective is a testament not only to the good work Northland does, but to the important role art plays in organizing.

The collective, recently in danger of having to close its doors, is staying in business because of a campaign started by supporters that raised $200,000 in financing. Co-founder Ricardo Levins Morales said people reacted to the possibility of closing “like a lifeline being cut off.”

The public response affirmed the need for an organization linking art and activism, he said. “It’s not just a question of the corner store that sells beautiful note cards going out of business.”

The collective sprung out of a conference on incorporating art in activism back in 1979. Starting with catalogs and now primarily through its website,, Northland tailors its work to the many situations activists encounter.

“Sometimes it might be an educational piece, sometimes it might be a cartoon, or a snappy slogan, or a really elaborate poster. It depends on how it will be used and what effect is needed,” said Levins Morales.

Northland has used this approach to help movements from anti-war and anti-Wal-Mart to immigrant rights and the environment. One of Northland’s biggest arenas, however, is labor.

“Identifying Northland as being an art mill for the labor movement came after the P-9 strike in Austin in 1985,” said Betsy Raasch-Gilman, Northland’s bookkeeper. Northland put out a broad call for labor art and hasn’t looked back since.

“It became clear we were serving a really unique role for that movement. So that really has been our strongest constituency,” said Morales.

In the ensuing years, Northland has pumped out t-shirts, caps, posters and bumper stickers with slogans like “I’m not for sale – don’t privatize me,” and “What part of good faith don’t you understand?”

During a transit workers negotiation in Philadelphia, the president of the union used a Northland button that said “Hands Off Our Benefits” as a bargaining chip. In Connecticut, union members wore shirts with pictures of bunny rabbits and the caption “Beware – when we’re screwed we multiply.” In the end the union got what it wanted.

Doing activist work, though, often doesn’t pay the bills. Raasch-Gilman said the collective has been on the edge for a long time. “Northland in spite of…maybe because of all the good work we do, has always been hanging by a thread.” When Levins Morales had to be hospitalized early in the year, the balance was thrown off.

The collective is extremely grateful for the support they have received.

“It’s humbling,” Raasch-Gilman said. “There are so many good causes out there, and they chose to give their money to us.”

Levins Morales sees the support as an affirmation that Northland has really been making a difference. “People make clear that we played an important role in their organizing successes,” he said.

With their new lease on life, Northland is trying new things. Raasch-Gilman says they are working on a program to bring in more young artists and teach them to apply their talent to the everyday needs of organizing. They are also gearing up for the healthcare debate with the slogan “Getting sick is not a crime – denying healthcare is.”

“We can work on it to make it catchier,” said Levins Morales, but it’s simple and highlights the issue.

Even if that slogan doesn’t stick around, Northland will. Because of community support Northland will be helping organizers and activists get their message out for years to come.

Elliot Ward, a recent graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, is an intern this summer with Workday Minnesota.