An Art Activist’s Toolkit: your 101 guide to starting a revolution

Be the change you wish to see in the world – Mahatma Gandhi

Activism is commonly defined as the usage of various campaigns to bring about social or political change. Add art, and you have art activism – or the use of the arts to bring about change! But how does one become an (art) activist and really turn one’s ideas into sustainable action? Dreaming is easy, but growing the seeds of revolution into a reality requires some degree of organisation, networking and planning. To help you sort those thoughts, GAPA has compiled a step-by-step guide on how to be the change-maker you’ve always wanted to be!

May it be starting an initiative like GAPA, gathering a group to start a singing protest, staging a radical flashmob or bringing together a collective of graffiti artists, change requires someone to pull the strings behind the scenes. While there is some scholarly debate on whether leadership is necessary for successful community action, most writers agree that at least initiative and structure are needed to create a functioning project. If you are reading this, you are on the right track and settled the initiative problem! Let us give you a bit of insight into structure – we have untangled the broad term of “change-making” and made an easy-to-follow 8-step list!

Step 1: Identifying the problem

What is the one issue that you care about, that gets your blood boiling, that makes you want to get up and take to the streets? Identifying the problem is about emotion – most importantly passion (either in the direction of strong love, or strong hate). If your passion is “changing the world”, narrow it down – what affects you directly? What have you experienced yourself? Be realistic here.

Once you find a problem, already try to think ahead and conceptualise what you would like to change about it, and what is realistic. If there is something concrete that displays itself as a viable solution to what you have identified – voila! Where there is a will, there is a way.

Step 2: Do your research

Once you have found your problem – excellent! It’s time to see what others have said and done about it so far. Good starting points are local communities or broader (inter)national initiatives that may have already worked on the topic you care about. For this step the Internet is your best friend! Google away, young art activist. Check out case studies, how-to-guides, principles and strategies that might inform your action as a new (art) activist. Why does this matter?

Firstly, it’s good to know what already exists so that you are not wasting your resources – you could just join an already existing organisation rather than starting something new! Secondly, making use of existing resources like best practices and guides will make your life a lot easier. Check out some theory, some principles and some tactics of change-making!

Step 3: Identifying your solution

Here there key is to remain realistic. Dream big, but don’t forget about the real world. Think about your ideal solution to the problem you have identified, and make use of what you have learned in Step 2. Taking the starting point of your perfect outcome, what do you have the capacities to do? How many people can you realistically gather? How many resources can you put together where you are, with the set-up you have?

Think outside the box – in this day and age, it’s difficult to find something that nobody has come up with yet. Again, the Internet is particularly useful at this stage to find outcomes that yield concrete outputs. Some good starting points include making concrete demands, raising awareness, putting a matter on the (public) agenda, or starting a network.

Step 4: Identifying your method

Once you know what you want, the question is how you are going to get it. There are many ways to make a change – starting from individual blogging to making a meeting space, to starting a full-on social movement or staging a protest. Ask yourself: are you more a before-the-scenes, or behind-the-scenes person? Could you get someone to help be your partner in crime in organising something? Good activism most likely involves a public figure to “get out there”, and someone who does the background work (and of course, there is no limit – the more the merrier!). Engage with people and find out what is needed in the particular field you have chosen. Are there not enough artists? Get them! No online platform? Make one! Not enough awareness? Contact the papers or the radio!


Image via Carsten ten Brinke at Flickr

Step 5: Gather your resources

Back to reality – what resources do you have to make your dream a reality? Most importantly, you will need human resources, structural resources, and financial resources. Human resources include friends and like-minded individuals who will help you – assuming you are not doing something by yourself.

However you need to think further – who would support you in your project? Perhaps a like-minded organisation or company, or an existing small collective? Establish partnerships and contact people! Structural resources include a basic set-up like a place you can work from, a computer with an Internet connection, a webspace and domain if you need it, and… well, in this day and age that’s probably it. Quite easy so far! The most difficult one is financial resources. There are people who manage to stage large-scale projects without a penny, although this approach most probably involves spending money out of your own pocket. See the next step for this one!

Step 6: Get the funds to survive

Things cost money. Even if things seem not to cost money, your project will most likely involve some expenses, be it travel, food for those late night planning sessions, advertising costs, or basic administrative maintenance costs (like website, an office space, various online platforms to help you, etc).

Again, the Internet is your number one place to find money here – narrow down your topic to basic keywords and spend hours on Google. Mostly there are foundations or funds that sponsor activities, particularly by young people. If you are politically aligned and can give yourself a label on the political spectrum – contact your local corresponding party. If you are in the European Union, check out EU grants. If you are an artist, look at local arts councils and initiatives that further the arts. Usually there is someone who will support you, although it might take a while to find them! If all fails, you can always crowdfund!


Image via Kenny Cole at Flickr

Step 7: Communicate your message

Let’s not forget, we live in the age of the Internet. Tell all your Facebook and Twitter followers about what you are doing, post in groups, join networks and mailing lists. There are loads of online platforms that give you access to hundreds of potential partners, friends or fellow activists to support your cause. Be clear, precise, and say what it is that you want. Most people don’t read long posts (speaking of, if you made it until this step, well done!). What are you doing, why, and what are you seeking? How can a reader be of use to you? What benefit do they have joining you? If you are on Facebook, there are loads of advertisements you can gather inspiration from. There is not more to say on this one other than: stay professional!

Step 8: Remain flexible and open

This is perhaps the most important of all steps outlined in this post. Stay flexible, and don’t be too rigid with any of the solutions you have come up with in any of the previous steps. Your goal is a simple one: be the change you wish to see. But as a change-maker, you need to remain fluid enough to adapt to the needs of your surroundings. This means that if the problem you have identified is fruitless, it might be better to change your angle on it a little. If your approach doesn’t seem to catch on, try a new one! If no one supports your cause, try a different channel! If a potential funder wants a particular project or approach, think about doing it. Don’t let failure de-motivate you. Change takes time, and good things take their time to catch on.


Once you have gone through these eight steps, there is nothing that can stop you. Regardless if you are a political activist, an artist who wants to alter the existing societal discourse, or a social change-maker with big dreams, channeling your thoughts and sorting them might be useful for identifying your capacity and the possibilities you have. Here at GAPA, we believe in initiative and proactivity! If you have a dream, make it real! Be friendly and engaged along the way, and you are good to go.

Happy change-making, everyone!

Wanda is the Chair and Co-founder of GAPA. To hear Wanda elaborate more on the process of setting up an NGO and on the idea that sparked the creation of GAPA, listen to this audio clip of her chat with other Executive Committee member Sadie.

Avid wanderluster, activist, and political sociologist, who is trying hard to be a civic/political educator one day. Also involved at Project Access, and the co-founder and chair of GAPA :) Welcome! Curious mind, revolutionary at heart. Originally Austrian, but I'm more rootless than anything else.

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