Art and Activism

Learn about cutting-edge contemporary artists operating at the forefront of social change and explore how artists confront social and political issues, shaping their work as a form of activism, criticism, or inspiration to transform the world we live in.


What role do artists play as activists? This course examines artists’ relationships with the world around them, focusing on artists who blur the line between art and activism, and whose work awakens viewers and readers to injustices and inequalities. Students will explore how artists address the injustices they see, how they employ art as a powerful tool for communication, and how they use their creativity to challenge established thought in order to create a more equitable culture.


The course will examine the history of art and activism by looking at work inspired by events such as the Vietnam War, 9/11, immigration, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Students will also learn about cutting-edge contemporary artists who are at the forefront of social change, such as Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei; interdisciplinary social activist Theaster Gates; and legendary feminist critics The Guerrilla Girls. By looking at diverse examples of activist art, students will see how artists respond directly to the needs of local communities through a variety of media. At the heart of this course lies the belief that artists can play a profound role in transforming our time and shaping the future.


Site Visit

Visits will include a combination of trips to major New York City art museums and public art installations, as well as galleries and other places related to activist art.


In the past, site visits have included:

  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
  • The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
  • The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
  • The Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice and Gallery
  • Top galleries, such as David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace Gallery
  • Artists’ studios


Guest Speakers

In the past, guest speakers have included:

  • Activist artists
  • Gallerists
  • Museum curators
  • Representatives from social justice organizations


Materials Fee: $245

Health Fee: $100


Please note: This information is subject to change at any time at the discretion of Sotheby’s Institute of Art.


Term Dates

Term dates and course availability depend heavily on instructors’ schedules.

  • Term 4 July 17 to July 29 Term Closed

All courses are open to rising 10th – 12th graders and graduating seniors. Explore the full summer schedule.

View Summer Schedule

What is an Intensive?

Intensives immerse students in a single subject area for the entire two-week Institute term, with the goal of cultivating comprehensive knowledge of that discipline. This thorough approach to learning enables students to develop deeper insights about the field by closely investigating its inner workings.

Course Highlights

Summer Institute enables students to dive deep into a course of study, sharpening skills for their academic and professional careers. Each course is carefully designed to suit student interests and encourage intellectual curiosity.

  • 1

    Students will tour an activist artist’s studio, led by the artist, who will describe their creative process and speak candidly about their involvement in social justice work. Students will have the opportunity to learn about works of art in progress, and to interact and ask questions to better understand how artists engage with social justice issues in their daily lives.

  • 2

    Students will hear from a museum curator whose research is situated at the intersection of art and racial justice and learn about staged events in major metropolitan areas that are intended to promote awareness.

  • 3

    This course is ideal for students who have an interest in social justice issues and their cultural impact. Students will explore these interests under the guidance of experts in the field and will emerge with newfound knowledge and appreciation of how contemporary artists shape the world in which we live.

  • 4

    Students will examine activist art across a wide range of topics, including the Black Lives Matter movement, feminist protest, the HIV/AIDS crisis, BIPOC and LGBTQ issues, immigration, community activism and climate change, and the importance of memorials as sites of cultural memory.

Summer Institute Faculty

Our instructors are award-winning Sotheby's Institute faculty, recognized thought leaders and professional experts in the art world. Each faculty member structures their course around real-time conversations defining their professions and helps students master the unique forces at play in the art world.

Summer Institute Faculty

Sign up for updates about our programs, courses and events.