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It’s everywhere. Displayed on billboards, plastered across social media, painted on city streets — from Minneapolis to New York City. You know what I’m referring to: businesses, towns and individuals are turning to art as a form of peaceful protest and sign of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

My company works with artists who create murals and street art in different communities. I’m the one who receives the requests from brands who want to partake in the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m increasingly disappointed by some of the ones from organizations looking for a Black artist for BLM projects.

What I’m talking about is being asked to connect companies with Black artists to create branded messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement — for temporary display and at a discount rate for the work. The thing is, it’s not OK for advertisers to use Black Lives Matter to burnish their brands. The people asking probably meant well. They didn’t consciously set out to co-opt a vital social movement to engage in meaningless corporate virtue signaling. But that’s exactly how their requests came across.

Empty gestures do more harm than good. Public art has been a tool of social change and expression since humans first daubed paint on the walls of caves. But when public art is requested and prescribed to meet someone else’s internal goals, particularly around a nationally charged social movement, it devalues the medium’s power. Worse still, it erases the artist’s vision.

A temporary public art installation sells the Black Lives Matter movement short by treating it like a fleeting and insubstantial fad. Black Lives Matter echoes the passion and pain of generations that have engaged in the human struggle for equality and justice. That’s the exact opposite of “trendy.”

I know art can be an amazing amplifier for movements. Tens of millions of people have participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and polls say two-thirds of Americans support the movement. Brands also want to express support, and good for them. But how they go about expressing support is important, and to be honest, some brands are doing it wrong.

Listen, I’m not Black. But that’s the thing — it’s not up to POCs to take a stand. It’s up to all of us. It’s up to everyone from you, to your neighbor, to the teacher in your children’s school, to the CEO of a predominately white company. And I’m not saying brands should be silent. I’m telling them to go deeper and question what they are truly doing to fight for equality.

So, how can companies that want to express support for Black Lives Matter approach the issue in a better way? Public art is great for sending a message and beautifying a community at the same time, but it’s important to understand that it’s not about the brand; it’s about amplifying Black voices and vision.

I believe reaching out to local communities as an ally is important. Commissioning a work of art that lifts a community up can be a meaningful way to express support, but only if the artist is paid properly to create an enduring statement that taps into their authentic vision.

It’s also crucial as businesspeople and brand representatives to do more than make a public statement with art, however meaningful and sincere the statement. I’ve grappled with how to be an effective ally in my capacity as the leader of a company too. So, ask yourself:

  • What changes can we make inside our organization to improve diversity?

  • How can we educate ourselves and our staff about how privilege works and better understand our role in dismantling systemic racism?

  • What’s the most effective way to reach out and support our local Black community in their struggle for justice and equality?  

  • How can we most efficiently channel our collective resources and volunteer efforts toward the social justice causes we believe in as an organization?

The point is that there must be real substance behind the public statement of support. Posting a black square on social media as a gesture of solidarity isn’t even close to being enough. The movement is about changing hearts and minds, and the best place to start is with our own.

I’m urging you to ask yourself the hard questions. Make yourself uncomfortable. Make others uncomfortable. And stop assuming that your brand’s BLM public display of art “checks the box” for your participation in this social justice movement.


Mateo Conner is the co-founder of the national Chicago-based “art activation” agency Muros.