Following every fresh policy announcement cooked up by the Trump administration, social feeds have filled up with variations on the theme of “call your local elected official and tell them not to stand for it.” For everything from the appointments of Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos to the looming defunding of Planned Parenthood, huge swaths of constituents have mobilized (with varying degrees of effectiveness) to call and email their representatives and make their opinions heard. But senators’ answering machines fill up, and emails can easily be sent to the trash.
What is less easy to ignore: a fax message. Despite the fact that may people have probably not operated a fax machine in a decade, “literally every elected official has a fax number with a D.C. area code; the faxes are collected and put right on their desks,” says Levi Brooks, co-founder and CEO of the design and technology studio Use All Five. With the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)’s $148 million budget on the chopping block in Trump’s budget proposal, Use All Five has launched an effort to get people to protest the funding cuts not by calling or emailing their representatives, but by faxing them an image of a work of art.
The way it works is easy: You visit the website and choose an image from the selection of 19 (and growing) work donated by artists and designers that Use All Five has brought on board the initiative. Some of the images are abstract: The artist Isa Beniston, for instance, donated a two-panel sketch of elephants. Others get straight to the point. An image from Studio Rodrigo features a block of text cataloging all the things that art is–education, culture, therapy, humanity–and ends with a simple statement: “Art is worth it.”
You can add a personalized message to the image, and when you enter your ZIP code, the open-source API put in place by Use All Five will pull up a list of your elected officials, and send the fax to whomever you select. Artifax launched just days ago, but Brooks says over 250 works of art have been sent out to elected officials so far.
Brooks co-founded Use All Five 11 years ago; since then, the studio has worked with clients as diverse as Google and Guggenheim on projects ranging from brand strategy to web design. The Use All Five team is made up of developers and designers; Brooks, whose background is in design and media arts, says working at the intersection of technology and art drives home “the importance of both philosophies and ways of seeing the world.”
“It scares me, both as an employee and a citizen, to see these cuts to the arts,” Brooks says. It’s a dynamic that has been playing out for years in public schools, where, amid funding cuts, programs like arts and music education are often the first to go. “There’s just not enough recognition of the value of art,” he adds.
Codifying that lack of appreciation at a federal level, Brooks says, is cause for concern. In 2016, the NEA was allotted around $148 million—approximately .02% of the total federal budget. But in 2013, the arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy by providing jobs, drawing crowds to live performances and galleries, and producing commodities like books and art. While the NEA provides some support to elite institutions like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, around 25% of NEA block grants go to rural communities, and 54% go to low-income areas. In those communities, Trump’s budget cuts would decimate arts programs, which have been shown to be crucial in revitalization efforts, while larger cultural institutions rake in enough private donations to remain afloat.
While the cuts to the NEA might seem like an attack on elite liberal institutions, they will instead further disadvantage the same low-income and rural communities that Trump claims to support. The NEA has proven so crucial to rural communities, particularly in the western states, that a top House Republican staff member told The New York Times that conservative representatives from those areas are unlikely to support a bill that cuts arts funding so drastically.
When Brooks and the team at Use All Five learned that the NEA was under threat, there was no question, Brooks says, that they wanted to do something to raise awareness of the importance of art; when Brooks came across a Tweet saying faxes were actually the best way to get ahold of elected officials, the idea for Artifax just came together.
The initiative is still new, and Brooks says Use All Five is working to solicit more images from artists and designers (you can also submit your own art on the site, if you are so inclined). While the Trump administration is in the process of finalizing the budget, Brooks hopes Artifax will help raise awareness about what the NEA does, and what a United States without the arts would be like. One of the most common sentiments Brooks has seen so far on the faxes is a quote, commonly misattributed to Winston Churchill, which asks: If we’re going to cut the arts, what would we have left to fight for?