"Look Up!" Where did the Great Art Go?

This insightful article is about Artists' Billboards in the United States, from the ones that ultimately achieve billboard art installation status to the ones that unceremoniously get rejected from billboard art installation status.

"Look Up!" is a terminology used in the United States in press releases, by art news journalists, in the title of events, or informally, to describe an event by grassroots curators who have organized an art exhibition on a billboard or billboards, usually around issues of social justice. These exhibitions are normally themed around social issues and are usually conducted by non-establishment Art curators, and feature non-establishment or emerging artists.   Even when the term look up is not directly used in press releases, by art news journalists, or in the title of the exhibition themselves, look up is informally used as a means to make people aware of an art exhibition that is literally taking place in the sky. If the public isn't aware to look up, they will miss out on the vital artistic expression surrounding some social cause or issue the artist's billboard is trying to express.

Artists' Billboard

Art exhibitions on a billboard or billboards are often referred to as artists' billboards or billboarding. A Billboard is broadly defined as a large outdoor printed or projected sign. Artists' Billboards have been a medium behind important art movements, but primarily Conceptualism. Billboard art often instigates a process, a questioning, or an argument, about an issue or value that often goes unquestioned or unresolved in the public mind, like defending the voices of minorities, such as women, gays, blacks, different ethnicities, etc. THEORY NOW: Billboard Art

"Look, up in the sky! It's women's art," was the headline to the February 11, 2008, article in the Los Angeles Times written by Los Angeles Times art critic Sharon Mizota. The artists' billboard exhibition was curated by Emi Fontana, and featured artists Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler, and Barbara Kruger.

"Look Up! Billboard Creative Art Show Open on the Streets of L.A. Through May 15," was the press release headline to The Billboard Creative's inaugural billboard art exhibition in the spring of 2015, in Los Angeles, California. It featured the work of 14 artists from seven countries. The goal of the exhibition was to provide emerging and underrepresented artists an opportunity to bypass the art gatekeepers by raising their profile.

"Look up. You may see work by your favorite artist," was the opening to Forbes, arts contributor Chadd Scott's October 18, 2020, Forbes article, "Artists Taking Over Billboards Across America." A lengthy seven minute read that featured stories of artists' billboards that were addressing issues of social justice.

In the spring and summer of 2020, in Syracuse, New York, artist Carrie Mae Weems in collaboration with Syracuse University curated Resist COVID Take 6! This was an art billboard exhibition that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. It featured works that promoted Covid-19 prevention measures, such as wearing face masks and social distancing. The TAKE 6 in the exhibition's title was a reference to the recommended six-feet distance between people. The inspiration for the exhibition was to act as a Public Service Announcement for Syracuse's Black, Latino, and Native communities who had been most negatively impacted by Covid-19.

In the fall of 2020, in New York City, New York, curator Indira Cesarine, founder of The Untitled Space, in collaboration with SaveArtSpace and Art4Equality held Art4Equality x Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness, a two-part exhibition that featured 10 billboards by different artists that culminated in a 50 artists gallery exhibition. These exhibitions were inspired by the words "Equality," "Life," "Liberty" and "The Pursuit of Happiness," and included the artist Panteha Abareshi.

Also in the fall of 2020, curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen curated their debut billboard art exhibits in New York City. Pollack and Verhallen founded Art at a Time Like This, a non-profit arts organization that presents art as a direct response to social and political events. Their exhibition Ministry of Truth: 1984-2020 was inspired by the fictional government ministry in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of the participating artists was V. L. Cox.

During the fall of 2020, in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, The Westmoreland Diversity Coalition and The Westmoreland Museum of American Art had selected 10 artists for its Diversity Billboard Art Project. Each artist was commissioned to create an original artwork inspired by the theme "Make Our Differences Our Strengths." Its theme was to visually convey how diversity and inclusion could make Westmoreland County communities stronger. One of the participating artists was Ginger Brooks Takahashi.

"There’s a new art exhibit opening this week in San Jose — but you won’t find it in a gallery. Instead, look up," was the opening to journalist Brett Bralley's August 3, 2021, [[San Jose State University]]'s Newsroom article, "San Jose Art Project Illustrates a Safe Emergence from ‘COVID Bubbles’." In the summer of 2021, in San Jose, California, San Jose State University professor Robin Lasser curated the billboard art exhibition ''Covid Bubbles''. It featured citywide billboard art installations aimed at the city's Hispanic and Vietnamese communities to promote vaccine awareness. The exhibition was part of a statewide initiative aimed at reminding Californians that their actions could save lives. Fourteen artist teams throughout California created pieces designed to empower their communities to celebrate a safe, vaccinated emergence from their “COVID bubbles.”

"Silicon Valley's Newest 'Look Up!' Exhibition Tickets, Oct 18 - Nov 17, 24-hours," was the headline by the online event management and ticketing website Eventbrite. In the fall of 2021, Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith curated the billboard art installation, ''Look Up!" in Silicon Valley, California. It featured Incarceration Nation, a work by American prison artist Donald "C-Note" Hooker. It had inspired a second event underneath the billboard, A Better San Jose Peaceful Rally.

"Anna  D. Smith's 'Look Up! 2' Hope & Beauty Art Exhibition Tickets, Mon, Dec 27, 2021 at 1:00 AM," was the headline by the online event management and ticketing website Eventbrite. In the winter of 2021, Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith curated the billboard art installation, ''Look Up! 2 Hope and Beauty'' in Silicon Valley, California. The theme of the exhibition was about hope and beauty, and took place during a new variant strain of Covid-19, Omicron, which was leading to mass sickness and deaths. Due to Covid-19 health restrictions, indoor art exhibitions at galleries and museums were nearly nonexistent, and art could only be exhibited outdoors. The exhibition featured Colored Girl Warholed, a 2015 work by American prison artist Donald "C-Note" Hooker.

In the fall of 2022, in the United States, during the run-up to the US congressional midterm elections, Swedish American conceptual artist Michele Pred and the Brooklyn-based non-profit SaveArtSpace curated ''Vote for Abortion Rights'', an artists' billboard exhibition featuring 10 artists. The basis for the exhibition was to raise awareness in US states with restricted access to abortions, and to have voters prioritise women’s health in time for the midterm elections.  

In the fall of 2022, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the billboard art exhibition Soul of a Nation took place at four locations around the city. The exhibition was curated by Jodie Herrera in conjunction with SaveArtSpace.   

Soul of a Nation explored social justice issues that centered on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), transgender and non-binary peoples and their fight for equity, justice and liberation. It also included reproductive justice, LGBTQIA+ issues, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, representation, ratifying the ERA, rematriation and women’s empowerment. 

Rejected Artists' Billboards

Since their appearance at the beginning of the last century, billboards have had detractors and champions. Court rulings have said they are “inartistic and unsightly” (1911), dismissed them as “visual pollution” (1975) and as late as 1981, the US Supreme Court concluded that billboards “by their very nature, wherever located and however constructed, can be an esthetic harm.”  

In 1989, the Public Art Fund in New York commissioned the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist artists who maintain their anonymity by wearing gorilla masks in public, to design a billboard. They visited The Met to compare the number of women artists represented in the modern art galleries with the number of naked female bodies featured in the artworks on display. The work they created for the billboard used one of the works in the collection, French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's 1814, Grande Odalisque, donning a gorilla mask, with the statistics in sub-text, while the primary text read, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? This work was rejected by The Public Art Fund citing reasons of lack of clarity. In protest, the Gorilla Girls created posters of this work and exhibited them on rented advertising spaces across New York. This also included on the sides of buses. The bus company further became a place that censored this work by canceling their lease. It viewed the image as being too suggestive, and the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand. Despite the censorship of this work, it has become their most iconic work to date, even being exhibited in the US National Gallery of Art.  

"Billboard Companies Reject 'Inflammatory' Art for Pro-Voting Campaign," was the headline to the November 1, 2022, article in Hyperallergic. Billboards designed by artists Deborah Kass and Cleon Peterson for a “get out the vote” campaign in Georgia were rejected by two of the largest billboard companies in the United States, Outfront Media and Lamar Advertising. These artist's billboards were being curated by People for the American Way, whose executive director Svante Myrick explained to Hyperallergic that Outfront Media called Kass and Peterson’s designs “inflammatory,” while Lamar Advertising said its legal team rejected the artworks. 


Artists' Billboards are not like other forms of public art, such as murals, Street art, and even graffiti. They are not at ground level and are only visible by looking up. They are highly regulated and subject to disapproval as Anna D. Smith told Billboard Insider,

Challenges that I experienced were finding a third-party vender, cost, securing the location of the billboard, compliance with type of display, and installation delays due to weather conditions. A last-minute surprise was that I was unable to have a text code that I purchased for the Billboard.I found in obtaining a text code, new FCC regulations made it a 4-month costly process, and they wanted to know the purpose in which the code would be used. I also was made aware that a text code can not be on a billboard in San Jose because the city does not want people driving and texting. I was made aware of this at the time of the installation of the billboard. I was given the option to paint over the text code or face a 5-day installation delay with a new billboard absent the text code. Luckily for me there were no delays in the installation.

1 Billboard Accomplishes 2 Objectives | Billboard Insider™


Nevertheless, Artists' Billboards are a very powerful voice to give to those outside of the establishment art system.