We were sorry to hear of the closing of the Northland Poster Collective after 30 years of "speaking art to power." Northland closed its doors for the last time at the end of June, (although you can still order items from their website). Founded in 1979 by activist artists, Northland was an important source for art, slogans, and cultural organizing experience for unions, grassroots activists, and social justice movements. Much of their considerable artistic output was developed in close relationship with those movements. The materials produced by Northland covered a spectrum from silkscreened posters and note cards to buttons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and other organizing tools and ranged from politically inspired quotes and poems to depictions of labor history and organizing slogans created for specific campaigns.
Part activist organization, part business, and part arts group, the collective was a union shop and remained committed to democratic self-management until the end. Northland workshops, with titles like "Give the Boss an Art Attack" and "Creative Organizing," were fixtures at union conventions. Its slogans have been a frequent sight on picket lines for the past three decades. In fact Northland coined or popularized such slogans as "The Labor Movement: The Folks That Brought You the Weekend," "Friends Don’t Let Friends Cross Picket Lines," "Unions: the Anti-Theft Device for Working People," among many others.
About their decision to close, founding member, artist Ricardo Levins Morales noted, "After 30 years of undermining Wall Street, it finally fell on us."
This closing is a sad reminder of the many wonderful media projects that have closed since the mid-1970s when 1960s’ activists were opening bookstores, publishing newsletters and newspapers of all kinds, and distributing them in creative ways.
Morales alludes to "Wall Street" as the cause for Northland’s demise, but almost every left of center media project has been struggling financially for the last 30 years. Even the better off ones like the Nation must send out urgent emergency fundraising pleas. And this doesn’t just apply to print media and video/audio projects that exist in "real time" or off-line, so to speak. Worthy Internet projects, too, must make periodic pleas and a few have folded, unable to sustain themselves in a media environment where information is "supposed to be free." Unfortunately, producing and distributing it isn’t.
Our own experience is perhaps definitive. When we (two of Z’s founders) decided to start a self-sustaining book publishing collective in 1977, we were able to raise around $50,000—a lot of money to us, but not much for what we were trying to do. Every year for the next ten years, we thought we would have to close our doors. We did everything we could to stay afloat—fundraising parties; visits to individual wealthy people who were known to be generous with their millions; large mailings to lists that became less and less useful/radical the farther we got from the exuberance of the 1960s; paying subsistence salaries and owing authors their royalties for years on end. Later, when we started Z in 1988, the experience was the same—always fearful of closing, always having to rely on dire emergency pleas to our readers and online users; in both cases, worrying about maybe having to scale back instead of expanding until we become so small that it’s not worth doing.
Ultimately, it seems to us that the only way that any of the left media can survive at all is through the generosity and commitment of its community of readers and users; or through a rich "angel" owner with very deep pockets (who may demand a say over the content); or by support from a union or political party; or by changing its content to appeal to a less radical audience; or by becoming online only, although as stated above, even that can be too costly. So while it has always been difficult for progressive media to stay afloat, Northland closing at this particular time is especially worrisome. Especially since at Z, this is the first time since 1994 that we’ve had to cancel Z Media Institute because (a) not enough people could pay; (b) we couldn’t afford the (up to) $20,000 in scholarships that we had given out in the past.
Since, clearly, this is not a great state of affairs. Even though new media have been created and the Internet has made it more possible to reach hundreds of thousands, we still need reliable funding to become more and more visible and influential. We have tried over the years to push for a left foundation that could fund (without taking control) a consortium of diverse radical media projects so that we don’t have to struggle to get information to the public to counter the corporate media message.
Returning to the Northland closing, a depressing thought springs to mind: Without some kind of dependable source of funding, will staying afloat for those of us involved in pushing the radical agenda through media become not just difficult, but impossible in the current economic climate?