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New York Artists Illustrate the Costs of Over-Policing
An Interview with Brandon Michael Nase, Artist in Residence at the NYCLU through Creatives Rebuild New York

Through our Artist Ambassador program and other endeavors, the NYCLU engages and empowers New York’s creative community to help amplify the fight for civil rights and social justice. In the spring of 2023, we opened the second iteration of the Museum of Broken Windows, a free pop-up exhibition in New York City featuring more than 70 artistic explorations of the dreams crushed by the city’s $29 million-a-day overreliance on law enforcement. By exposing the true costs of excessive policing on Black and Brown communities, the museum highlighted the need to devote those resources to systemic solutions for the lack of affordable housing, the shortage of mental health care, and other pressing issues.

Former Artist Ambassador Brandon Michael Nase was a key contributor to the “29 Million Dreams” exhibition at the museum. A performer, producer, director, and educator, Brandon is finishing up a two-year artistic residency with the NYCLU through Creatives Rebuild New York, which supports artists in imagining new approaches to community challenges and collective power. He founded Broadway for Racial Justice, a movement that fought for racial justice and equity in the Broadway and theatrical community at large. A former public-school choral music teacher, Brandon is now performing and music directing/supervising in the theatre industry. He holds a Bachelor of Music in music education from the University of North Texas College of Music and a Master of Music in performance from NYU Steinhardt.

We spoke with Brandon about the unique role artists play in pushing for social change, why over-policing issues are a priority for him, and what a third Museum of Broken Windows might look like.

NYCLU: What has been the focus of your Creatives Rebuild artistic residency?

Brandon Michael Nase: The big thing that I worked on with the NYCLU was the Museum of Broken Windows. My big project was commissioning two performance pieces that were performed at the museum, and then we did a professional capture of those pieces to be utilized by the NYCLU and by the artists for their portfolios. Now, I’m assisting with envisioning the infrastructure around what it would look like to have artists in residence more readily involved with the NYCLU in a way that supports the artists as well as the organization.

Why do you think the Museum of Broken Windows is an effective way to articulate these over-policing issues?

BMN: I think there’s a huge breakdown between social change and artists, especially as it pertains to advocacy organizations. They’re like, “Oh, we can use artists to raise money.” But we could use artists to actually inform legislative change. The NYCLU is doing better at that. Instead of approaching artists like, “This is what we’re going to do,” it needs to be more of a collaboration: “How does your creative mind view this issue? What are we potentially missing as we’ve been trying to get this legislation passed for five years now?” It’s super important to have the creative minds in the room to help ideate the best route and the shifts that need to be made.

I think the Museum of Broken Windows ultimately attempts to do that. It’s great as a starting point. We were starting to ideate plans for what a Museum of Broken Windows 3.0 would look like, and I said, “Well, if we’re utilizing art that speaks to the issue but it’s stationary, then the people who are going to come see it are the people that want to know about it.” I’m very interested in taking something like that to the people who aren’t interested but need to hear it. We were looking at utilizing one of those LED screen trucks as a remote museum. So whether that’s performance pieces, spoken-word art, or visual art, if we park it in front of the mayor’s office, what does that do? How does that change things?”

What’s unique to this NYCLU collaboration in terms of furthering your activism and art?

BMN: It’s unique in that I’m being financially supported, which artists don’t normally get to do. Depending on the stage in your career, it’s almost the opposite. You have to be strategic and not say things so as to not hurt your career and opportunity to make money. Whereas if you’re working for an advocacy organization who says, “We need your voice speaking to these issues,” it’s a beautiful marriage of being able to use your voice and create art and also be supported financially with benefits. I think more advocacy organizations should be looking into what it would mean to have artists on staff part-time and support them in that way, and in turn be supported by artists.

Beyond policing, what other NYCLU-related issues most draw your attention and passion? 

BMN: As it pertains to the NYCLU, policing is kind of the biggest thing for me. I am a Black man. I have family in the carceral system. I feel very strongly about how broken policing in our city is. We have a mayor who was a police officer, so we’re truly as [screwed] as we could be. There are other things: I’m very passionate about education, such as the Alliance for Quality Education’s Solutions Not Suspensions bill. But the way that this police force goes completely unchecked with unlimited resources is terrifying.

Do you feel that artists and performers have a unique role in society when it comes to activism or civil rights efforts?

BMN: There’s something so powerful to me about Martin Luther King calling Mahalia Jackson and being like, “I just need you to sing to me.” If you look at the fight for civil rights over the years, and you look at the leaders, we don’t move forward without artists. These organizations have to start figuring out, “How do we activate artists in a very intentional way?”

Looking ahead at this next year, what do you hope to make happen?

BMN: I work heavily in the theater industry, and I’m working a lot right now on the music side: music supervising projects, music directing. I am very adamant about opening doors, especially to Black people, that haven’t been opened. The theater industry is so gate-kept it’s insane. Talent is too often too low on the list. I am a disrupter, and I feel like I’m in a phase of life where I’m actually inside trying to just open doors and then send a secret text message: I left this door open, come in and help me [stir things] up.

Are there ways in which your early experiences shaped your activism as an adult?

BMN: Oh, yeah. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and there was a lot of unpacking that I had to do once I got into college. It was like, “You mean everything’s not like it was in my small, white hometown?” And realizing, “Oh, that was racism.” I became more aware, and my eyes were open to the realities. It is a difficult thing to process, and then you’re in the space of: never again. That’s what I fell into and quickly became very loud about it: This is wrong, it’s not acceptable. And I know younger Black people in my hometown who are going to go through this exact same thing, and I want to speak to that so they don’t have to, or at least so they know there’s somebody who already did go through it who they can talk to.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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Brandon Michael Nase portrait