Events | Arts in Times of Crises: The Role of Artists in Weakened Democracies | Konferenz

Los Angeles | 17. November 2023 – 19. November 2023

Arts in Times of Crises:

The Role of Artists in Weakened Democracies

Im November 2023 veranstaltet das Thomas Mann House Los Angeles ein zweitägigen Programm, das von Zócalo Public Square & Los Angeles Review of Books gemeinsam präsentiert wird und die Rolle von Künstler:innen und Kunst in Zeiten politischer und sozialer Krisen in den Vereinigten Staaten und Deutschland diskutiert. Nehmen Sie Teil an der Auftaktveranstaltung in der Villa Aurora am 17. November, an der öffentlichen Konferenz im REDCAT am 18. November und an einem Symposium im Thomas Mann House am 19. November. Diese internationale Konferenz bietet Expert:innen, Aktivist:innen, Kulturveranstalter:innen und Künstler:innen den Raum zu erkunden, wie die Künste in Zeiten internationaler Krisen einen Unterschied machen und wie Künstler:innen zum Funktionieren von Demokratien auf lokaler und globaler Ebene beitragen können. Mit internationalen Gästen wie Werner Herzog, Catherine Opie, Gregory Sholette, Suzanne Lacy, Lynne Thompson, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, und vielen mehr!

Scrollen Sie runter, um das vollständige Programm, die Sprecher:innen und Anmeldeoptionen zu sehen!

*Die Konferenz findet in englischer Sprache statt.*

The freedom of art and artistic expression is one of the imperatives of every democracy. But what is the role of artists and art institutions when democracies come under pressure? Against this background, is it legitimate to speak about a political mandate of the arts? The global pandemic proved once again the important role of art for functioning societies: Museums exchanged in-person visits for virtual exhibitions and digital archives on display, musicians livestreamed concerts on social media from their bedrooms and film and television streaming services were in high demand: Art provided a beacon of hope in this uncertain time, while questions about the ‘value’ of artists for societies were widely debated.

Today, against the backdrop of global geopolitical tensions, wars and societal divisions in many western democracies, art shows again its transformational power to connect, heal, subvert, and bring together. From the consumption of art to its production, from local debates on arts and community engagement to questions of A.I. and changing digital art markets or the recent revival of “artivism” – current debates around the world prove it necessary to ask what difference the arts can make in a time of social and political crisis. In what ways can artistic media, objects, and projects, as well as the artists and cultural workers involved in their emergence, offer new ideas that address such crises?


17. November | Auftaktveranstaltung an der Villa Aurora


Politics and Fiction: Lion Feuchtwanger and The Oppermanns

Reading from the Revised English Translation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns by Joshua Cohen, followed by a conversation with Andrea Grossman, founder of Writers Bloc Presents.

Location: Villa Aurora | Beginning at 7:30 p.m. | By invitation only

What is the difference between a political novel and the so-called "politics of the novel"? If political fiction has a purpose, is that purpose to galvanize or to memorialize (or both)? Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1933 novel The Oppermanns narrates the fall of a prominent German Jewish family caused by the Nazis rise to power, chronicling historical events almost contemporaneously and raising profound questions about the relationship between art and politics and lessons for today. Poignantly, the event will take place at Feuchtwanger’s exile residence in Pacific Palisades where he found refuge from Nazi prosecution and, again, became a target of government surveillance.

More information.

In cooperation with USC Libraries.

18. November | Öffentliche Konferenz


Location: REDCAT, 631 W 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Attendance: RSVP for part I and II here

Part I


1:30 p.m.


Once, We Were Rivers

Poetry Reading by Lynne Thompson, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles 2021-2022

1:45 p.m.


Welcoming Address

Steven Lavine, President Emeritus CalArts, Chairman of the Thomas Mann House Advisory Board
Andreas Michaelis, German Ambassador to the United States
Markus Klimmer, Chairman of Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House e. V.

2:00 p.m.

A Search for Radical Democracy

Keynote Performance by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Performance Artist, and Artistic Director of La Pocha Nostra

2:30 p.m.

Must Artists Be Activists?

Live in person at REDCAT and live-streamed to Zócalo Public Square’s YouTube Channel here!

Panel discussion with Q&A. Moderated by Karen Mack, Founder and Executive Director, LA Commons

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” a friend told Toni Morrison in a fraught political moment, “not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” Is this true of every artist, and must it be the case all the time? Great art and true democracies are built on freedom of expression—but when it comes under threat, are artists who don’t respond acting irresponsibly? Can artists shield themselves from the demands of politics and polarized discourse or—in places and periods where activism puts their life and liberty at risk—from bodily danger? Does all their work, in a moment of crisis, have to address that crisis? And how can they know when that moment has come? Social-practice artist Suzanne Lacy and photographer Catherine Opie discuss the role they see themselves, their work, and their peers playing in sustaining, enhancing, or even strengthening democracy when it feels like everything is going up in flames.

3:45 p.m.

End of Part I


Part II




4:45 p.m.

How Should Arts Institutions Navigate the Culture Wars?

Live in person at REDCAT and live-streamed to Zócalo Public Square’s YouTube Channel here!

Panel Discussion with Q&A. Moderated by Kristin Sakoda, Director, Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture

Polarization has engulfed arts organizations—like every other institution in 21st-century American and European life. But rather than finding themselves pulled apart by political parties doing battle, museums, performing arts companies, and other cultural cornerstones often face other conflicting demands, positioned between their aging donors and overwhelmingly white audience-bases on one side and younger, more diverse artists and new audiences on the other. How are institutional leaders navigating the warring tides of politics and public opinion—tides that may steer them toward uncertain futures? Can organizations help artists, patrons, and the public find common ground, or productive ways to discuss their differences, in this moment of deep democratic and cultural conflict? And, even as they themselves struggle to stay afloat, how do arts institutions serve as spaces of civic engagement, community, and inclusion? MOCA director Johanna Burton, Center Theatre Group artistic director Snehal Desai, former Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive artistic director Nataki Garrett, and Whitney Museum director emeritus Adam D. Weinberg discuss how the culture wars have impacted their work, and where they see institutions, and the arts at large, going next.

6:00 p.m.

The Future of Truth: Werner Herzog & Paul Holdengräber in Conversation

Keynote Dialogue with Filmmaker Werner Herzog and Cultural Interlocutor Paul Holdengräber

7:30 p.m.


19. November | Symposium


Location: Thomas Mann House

By invitation only.

10:45 a.m.

Welcoming Address

Oliver Hartmann and Benno Herz, Director and Program Director of Thomas Mann House

11:00 a.m.

The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art

Opening Keynote by artist, writer, and activist Gregory Sholette

11:30 a.m.

The Political Mandate of the Arts. Explorations by VATMH Fellows

Presented by journalist René Aguigah, media studies scholar and curator Sophie-Charlotte Opitz, and composer and creative director Cathy Milliken, with a concluding discussion by Gregory Sholette and Ralf Beste, Head of Culture and Society, Federal Foreign Office, Germany.

The freedom of art is one of the imperatives of every democracy. But what is the role of art and artists when democracies come under pressure? Against this background, is it legitimate to speak about a political mandate of the arts? On which social issues can artists and cultural workers give new impulses?

1:00 p.m.


2:00 p.m.

Opportunities, Limits and Contradictions of Cultural Institutions Political Engagement

Panel Discussion with Q&A. Moderated by curator and writer Asha Bukojemsky

How has the role of artistic institutions shaped and been shaped by social and political crises in recent years? What is the role of the state in supporting the arts, especially from a transatlantic perspective. UCLA European studies scholar David Kim, performance artist and director of L.A. Poverty Department John Malpede, and director of public programs and education at Hammer Museum Claudia Bestor engage in a discussion regarding these issues.

3:00 p.m.

What Does an Artist Do When the World Is On Fire?

Concluding Artist Thoughts. Moderated by Joes Segal, Chief Curator and Director of Programming at The Wende Museum.

Where do art, activism, and social justice movements intersect? Given the many historical precedents for this alignment, artist and educator Phung Huynh and African American literature professor, writer, and artist Ajuan Mance discuss what the idea of artists as activists can elucidate about the understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and social justice today.

4:00 p.m.



Sprecher:innen in alphabetischer Reihenfolge


René Aguigah

René Aguigah studied history, philosophy and journalism in Bochum and Dortmund. In 2002 he became an editor at WDR radio and later at the magazine Literaturen. Today he heads the literature department of Deutschlandfunk and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Between 2013-2015 he was a member of the jury for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize and he is a current 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow. His project aims to comment on James Baldwin's work by exploring the polarities within his essays and novels, among them the most important being the relationship between artistic work and political intervention.


Ralf Beste

Ralf Beste is the Director-General for Culture and Society at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, overlooking the areas of cultural and educational policy as well as public diplomacy. From 2019 to February 2022 Ralf served as German Ambassador to the Republic of Austria. Other roles since joining the Federal Foreign Office in 2014 include the position as Director for Strategic Communication and Head of the Policy Planning Staff. Prior, Ralf worked as correspondent for different newspapers and magazines, among them Der Spiegel for 13 years.


Claudia Bestor

Claudia Bestor joined the Hammer Museum in March 2008 as the Director of Public Programs and Education. Inspired by the Hammer Museum’s commitment to create a cutting edge cultural center in Los Angeles, Bestor has expanded and diversified the breadth and appeal of Hammer’s free public programs. Prior, she spent 12 years in the film industry, and was a freelance photographer for a variety of media including the New York Times. Additionally, she has had research programs at the American Museum of Natural History and the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Bestor earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a MS from Duke University.


Asha Bukojemsky

Asha Bukojemsky is an independent curator and public programmer based in Los Angeles. In 2017 she founded, MARATHON SCREENINGS, a monthly series of video and conceptual film presentations. She was also the driving force behind Kyviv to L.A., an exhibition and residency project which brought six Ukrainian artists to participate in a L.A.-based residency during a time where Ukranian sovereignty and culture are under attack. The program was in collaboration with several L.A.-based organizations such as 18th Street Arts Center, Institute of Contemporary Arts, L.A., Villa Aurora, Thomas Mann House, Art at the Rendon and many more.


Johanna Burton

Johanna Burton is an art historian, curator, writer, and educator and since November 2021 she has been the Maurice Marciano Director of The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Burton holds more than a decade of leadership experience in major museums and prominent arts and education institutions. Prior to her role at MOCA her past posts include tenures as Executive Director of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, Keith Haring Director & Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, NY, and Associate Director & Senior Faculty Member at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program.


Snehal Desai

Prior to being named Center Theatre Group’s new Artistic Director, Snehal Desai was the Producing Artistic Director of East West Players, the nation’s largest and oldest Asian American theatre company. While at EWP, Desai produced and directed the three highest grossing and most attended shows in their fifty-seven-year history. Additionally, through his leadership he sought to raise awareness on social issues that affect Angelenos through impactful and empowering storytelling. Desai received his B.A. from Emory University in political science and theater studies and completed an MFA in directing at Yale University.


Nataki Garrett

Nataki Garrett is a nationally recognized artistic leader. She was the first Executive Artistic Director and the sixth Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Garett is also the first female and person of color in the country to lead a forty-four million theater company. While at OSF, Garrett created Quills Fest, an immersive digital event intersecting XR and theater. In 2022 she served as executive producer for the Sundance award winning film YOU GO GIRL!, and the film ASHLAND both by Shariffa Ali. She has received several awards including the 2023 Bronze Telly Award and the OMPA Creative Innovation award.


Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a Mexican/Chicano performance artist, writer, activist, and educator who uses multiple media, including performance art, experimental radio, video, photography and installation art. Through mixing various aesthetics, activist politics, Spanglish humor, his work has contributed to debates on cultural, generational, and North-South relations. A MacArthur Fellow, USA Artists Fellow, and a current Senior Fellow in the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, he is also a contributing editor to publications such as The Drama Review (NYU-MIT) and the Venice Performance Art Week Journal.


Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is an internationally renowned German film director, screenwriter, author, actor, and regarded as a pioneer of New German Cinema. Herzog studied history and German literature in Munich and Pittsburgh and lives between Los Angeles and Munich. He has produced, written, and directed more than sixty feature- and documentary films, such as AGUIRRE DER ZORN GOTTES (1972), NOSFERATU PHANTOM DER NACHT (1978), FITZCARRALDO (1982) as well as more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas. Throughout his films his characters are dreamers, conquerors, often facing loneliness and deep longings.


Paul Holdengräber

Paul Holdengräber is an interviewer, curator of public curiosity, and the Founding Executive Director of Onassis Los Angeles (OLA). Prior he was Founder and Director of The New York Public Library’s Live where he interviewed and hosted over 600 events, including interviews with Patti Smith, Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog and many more. Before his tenure at the library, he was the Founder and Director of “The Institute for Art & Cultures” at the LACMA. Holdengräber holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University where he has also taught. In 2010 the Austrian president has awarded him with the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art.


Phung Huynh

Phung Huynh is a L.A.-based artist and educator whose practice includes drawing, painting, public art, and community engagement. Huynh received her B.F.A. from the University of Southern California and her M.F.A. degree from New York University. Through constructing images of the Asian female body she unpacks how cosmetic surgery can whitewash cultural and racial identity. Reflected throughout her art on pink donut boxes she explores the complexities of assimilation among Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. Additionally, she has had solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and the Sweeney Art Gallery at UC, Riverside.


David D. Kim

David D. Kim is a professor in the department of European Languages and Transcultural Studies at UCLA as well as Associate Vice Provost at the International Institute at UCLA. Kim’s scholarly interests range from postcolonial, global, and migration studies and community engagement to human rights, cosmopolitanism, cultural and political theories, global literary histories, and digital humanities. His first monograph is Cosmopolitan Parables (Northwestern University Press, 2017) and his peer-reviewed articles have recently appeared in The German Quarterly, Monatshefte, Gegenwartsliteratur, and Journal of Translation Studies.


Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy is an artist, educator, and writer as well as a renowned pioneer in socially engaged and public performance art. Her installations, videos, and performances deal with sexual violence, rural and urban poverty, incarceration, labor and aging. Her large-scale projects span around the globe, including England, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Ireland and the U.S. In 2019 she had a career retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at Yerba Buena Art Center. Currently she is a professor at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California and a resident artist at 18th Street Arts Center.


Karen Mack

Over 20 years ago, Karen Mack created the South LA based nonprofit LA Commons based on a vision of communities where everyone has the access and freedom to express themselves culturally and to tap the power that creativity provides. Since that time, she and her team have worked in neighborhoods across the city, implementing artistic programs that foster interaction, dialogue and collaboration for a better Los Angeles. LA Commons plays a unique role as a facilitator of local engagement in arts and culture as well as in other important issues.


John Malpede

Founded in 1985 by performance artist John Malpede and still directed by him today, the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) creates and nourishes community through art. LAPD is the first performance group in the nation compromised of primarily of homeless and formerly homeless people. Together Skid Row residents create, produce, and perform theatrical, multimedia, and visual artwork which connects lived experience to the social forces that shape the lives and communities of people living in poverty. In addition to LAPD, Malpede has taught at UCLA, NYU, and The Amsterdam School for Advanced Research in Theater and Dance.


Ajuan Mance

Ajuan Mance is a Professor of African American literature at Mills College in Oakland, California as well as a writer and artist. Throughout her comics and illustrations she uses the elements of humor and bright colors to explore race, gender, and power, and the people and places in which they intersect. Her work has appeared in a number of digital and print media outlets, including most recently The Women’s Review of Books,,, Transition Magazine,,, The San Francisco Chronicle,, KPIX News, and Publisher’s Weekly.


Cathy Milliken

Cathy Milliken is an award winning composer, performer, and creative director. Miliken is familar with many genres including chamber and orchestral music, film music, music theatre, installations and opera. She is also passionate about social music practice and has led and co-created many participatory musical interventions and works. She is a current 2023 Villa Aurora Fellow and her project “In Speak or Octopus” (working title) is generated by comments taken during interviews by the members of the Arditti Quartet about their repertoire and rehearsal practice.


Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie is a professor of photography at UCLA and an artist working with photography, film, collage, and ceramics. Opie's work explores connections between mainstream and infrequent society as well as the relationship between the individual and the space one inhabits. She was a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow recipient and the Robert Mapplethorpe Resident in Photography at the American Academy in Rome for 2021. Opie’s work is held in over 50 major collections throughout the world. She received a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute, and an M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts.


Sophie-Charlotte Opitz

Sophie-Charlotte Opitz studied philosophy and art education at Goethe University Frankfurt and subsequently completed her doctorate. In 2019 she began her curatorial practice as a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart and afterwards worked in the fellowship program Museum Curators for Photography of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Foundation. Since 2022 she has been the Artistic Director of Museum Villa Rot in Burgrieden and she is a 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow. In her project, she utilizes various visual media platforms and images by analyzing how they can be used to connect people during critical times.


Kristin Sakoda

Kristin Sakoda is an arts executive, attorney, and performing artist. She is Director of the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture, a local arts agency with a mission of advancing arts, culture, and creativity. Prior to her role, Sakoda served as the Executive Director of the L.A County Arts Commission. Under her leadership, she led the organization during its historic transition into the County’s first Department of Arts and Culture. She holds a J.D. from NYU School of Law, and a B.A. from Stanford University in American studies, with a specialization in race and ethnicity, and a secondary major in feminist studies.


Joes Segal

Joes Segal is Chief Curator and Director of Programming at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, Los Angeles, where he has organized more than 25 exhibitions. He has published widely on German cultural history, Cold War culture, and art and politics in international perspective. Among his book publications are Divided Dreamworlds? The Cultural Cold War in East and West, co-edited with Peter Romijn and Giles Scott-Smith (Amsterdam University Press, 2012) and Art and Politics: Between Purity and Propaganda (Amsterdam University Press, 2016).


Gregory Sholette

Gregory Sholette is an artist, activist, author and professor at Queens College, City University of NY. Sholette holds a Ph.D. in history and memory studies from the University of Amsterdam and he is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program in Critical Theory. His art and research theorize and document issues of collective cultural labor, activist art, and counter-historical representations that often remain invisible. He has contributed to journals such as Field, Eflux, Frieze and his most recent publication is titled The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art (Lund Humphries, 2022).


Lynne Thompson

Lynne Thompson is the 2021-2022 Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants and a lawyer by training, she has released many poetry collections including Beg No Pardon (2007) and was the winner of the Perugia Press Prize and the winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous publications such as Ploughshares, Poetry, Poem-A-Day (Academy of American Poets), and many more. Thompson sits on the boards of the Los Angeles Review of Books and Cave Canem and is the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Scripps College, her alma mater.


Adam D. Weinberg

Adam D. Weinberg is an art museum curator and director emeritus. From 2003- October 2023 he served as the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. During his tenure, the Whitney has presented dozens of critically acclaimed exhibitions on diverse emerging, mid-career and senior artists and created award-winning educational programs. In addition to his leadership at the Whitney, Weinberg serves on the boards of numerous arts organizations from the Terra Foundation for American Art, and Storm King Art Center to the American Academy in Rome. In 2024 he will be a Presidential Fellow at The American Academy in Berlin.


An Event by the Thomas Mann House Los Angeles co-presented by Zócalo Public Square, REDCAT, Los Angeles Review of Books, & USC Libraries.