Michael Lebron, A’76
Michael Lebron is a freelance advertising art director. He describes himself an art guy with a love for science and techie stuff. He has worked mostly in healthcare advertising in a number of therapeutic categories and produced work for the entertainment sectors. He has also created advertising campaigns for political and environmental groups. He was recently interviewed by Mary Lynch, ChE ’82.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in St. Louis, but lived the majority of my childhood in New Jersey.
When did you know that you were an artist and how did you learn about the Cooper Union?
When I was 5 years old, my teachers noticed that I was drawing 3-dimensionally, I didn’t just do stick figures. When I got to high school, my art teacher felt I needed – and helped me find – a private art tutor, Bob Schultz, who taught at the Students Art League and was a prolific magazine illustrator.
I learned about The Cooper Union and other art schools partly on my own, and with help from the high school student counselor dept. I still remember the drawing test that I took to enter Cooper that was given in The Great Hall.
When did you attend Cooper and what was your major?
I attended from 1972 to 1976. I majored in painting and drawing but I was a little all over the place intellectually (and still am), so I also took classes in physics, astronomy, political science, film, graphic design, etc, some of them I think were at NYU if I remember correctly.
Did you have an opportunity to enjoy Green Camp?
Yes, I did but only during my freshman year. It was sold that year.
What are some of your memories from your student days?
The Foundation Building was being redone, so our classrooms were in office buildings spread around the Village. As now, it was a period of cost-cutting. I recall that the school was reducing faculty; we had an activist student body who stood behind their efforts to unionize. The city was a much more exciting place to be in those days, more edgy. There were actually a lot of creative, intellectual people here.
Did you have a favorite course or favorite professor?
My favorite professors were Don Kunz in calligraphy, Jake Berthot in painting, Dore Ashton for art history, and maybe most importantly, Hans Haacke and Arthur Corwin who made sure I never stopped turning things over in my head.
What did you do following Cooper?
My first job out of Cooper was as a calligrapher at a scroll studio: I got paid like a monk in an abbey. I then began freelancing in graphic design. From there, I fell into a career in healthcare advertising. It is a field that requires both good design and conceptual thinking: the science appealed to me, the idea of facilitating education, communication around health and wellness between providers and patients. One of the things that made The Cooper Union attractive to me over other colleges was that it had a science school, which Cooper then closed but let’s not go there.
What is it that you do in pharmaceutical advertising?
I work as part of a team that includes a copywriter, designers, editors, account supervisors in addition to the art director. We insure that the brand’s value is consistently communicated, that its personality is memorable, across all necessary platforms and channels.
What part of the process do you find most enjoyable?
I like the strategic part of it. I like the creative thinking. Most of all, I like making a concrete, practical difference in people’s lives. Yes, it’s a business, but at its best, it’s a mission-oriented business.
Tell me about your public art projects.
I believe that advertising is an art form, the dominant one of our time; that all art has an ideological viewpoint, and that all advertising is political. Consumer advertising advocates for a consumerist way of living: consumerism is a political viewpoint. I use the medium of advertising to break down the discourse of consumerism. The work resembles advertisements and has a social message.
Why do you choose locations on public property to display your art?
I have displayed my work in galleries and museums both here and abroad. But since the work has a dialectical relationship to marketing discourse, it acquires more meaning and energy when placed in a public context among other advertisements.
I lease space on billboards the way any advertiser would do. I make billboards my art gallery. I choose locations on government owned property, like bus and train stations, where there has already been advertising that regulators consider political advertising. Once the government accepts political ads, the law demands that they accept all ads, they must be viewpoint neutral. Though my position is that all advertising is political, the law distinguishes between commercial and political advertising.
Vendors of these billboard spaces have broken contracts with me. They never know what the law is, they just say they have fine print in the contract saying they can reject the ad for any reason, but one went so far as to say that “Our other advertisers don’t want their ads to be next to this.”
So we end up in court with First Amendment cases that usually revolve around something called Public Forum Doctrine. One of those cases got considerably more complicated, however. I signed a contract for 2 months to lease a 100 ft x 10 ft backlit billboard space in New York’s Penn Station. Amtrak argued that they were a private corporation and had a 1st Amendment right not to put up my ad. We took them to court over the question of State Action: when is an entity private, and when is it part of the government? We won in Federal District Court, and got reversed by the 2nd Circuit. The US Supreme Court then granted cert. Antonin Scalia wrote a majority 8-1 opinion in our favor, arguing that Amtrak was created by the Federal government, and that language specifying that Amtrak was to function as a “for-profit corporation” simply meant that Congress did not want Amtrak to be a liability to the taxpayer. The government could not evade its Constitutional obligations by simply resorting to the corporate form. If they could, Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896) can be resurrected by the simple device of having the State of Louisiana operate segregated trains through a state owned Amtrak.
Click here for the NY Times Story about the case.
So did you have your Art Work displayed in the Train Station?
Ironically, that work designed for the NY Penn Station has been shown only once, completely out of the context for which it was intended, at the 1995 Habana Bienalle where it was the only work ever to be shown in the reception hall of the National Museum of Fine Art. It has been sitting rolled up in a storage facility in NJ ever since.
There was one project that did go up without any resistance from government officials, however.
In 1987, I got a call from a friend who was working for a Central American peace group. They wanted to do an advocacy ad campaign to drive opposition to congressional funding of the Contras in Nicaragua. Since the contras were too weak to take the Sandinista army on directly, they instead fought a war of attrition, attacking soft targets, meaning schools, homes, buses, etc….civilians, in other words. A disproportionate number of the victims were children, who were killed, maimed, orphaned and left homeless. I suggested that we base the campaign around the idea of Nicaraguan children writing a letter to an American child their own age about their experience of the war, but to do so by drawing a picture of it with crayons and markers.
How did you obtain the children’s art work and how did you incorporate it into the campaign?
I flew down to Nicaragua and spent a few weeks in the heart of the northern war zone. A group called Witness for Peace provided me with non-violence training – so I would be better able to tolerate being shot at with my own tax dollars – and put me in touch with Paul Dix, a freelance photojournalist for Time and Newsweek who had been captured by the Contras twice, lived to tell the tale, and knew the area and the people there very well. I hired him as my guide. We collected approximately 150 drawings from about 125 children.
Of these, I selected 25 of the drawings that told specific stories that I was able to cross-reference and authenticate through a lawyer at Central Americas Watch, and made each of them into ads that included a photo of the child, a paragraph explaining who the child is and the scene that they were a witness to. They were displayed throughout the DC Metro system.
What was the public reaction to this poster campaign?
Judge Robert Bork’s confirmation hearings began on the same day as this campaign started. Since Judge Bork was one of the judges that wrote the federal opinion in an earlier 1st Amendment case of mine, national media outlets gave our Anti-Contra campaign huge exposure: our little $40K investment got several $Million in earned media.
How did that make you feel?
I was glad to be able to do something that made a contribution to a much larger effort. Dozens of groups were lobbying against the funding of the Contras and thanks to everyone’s work, funding failed to pass during that congressional session.
What are some of your current projects?
I have two film projects that I am working on. One is about the U.S. invasion of The Dominican Republic in 1965.
The other tells the story of a rural family in Pennsylvania whose drinking water was allegedly contaminated by fracking. For about four years, I had been working as a grassroots activist in Pennsylvania and upstate New York on fracking and environmental justice issues. Among other things: I helped about 20 families organize themselves and connected them to a law firm in NYC that would represent them in their fight against a gas company that contaminated their groundwater supplies in Pennsylvania; and I created a television commercial for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network that got picked up by Yoko Ono and Artists Against Fracking who have aired it in Albany and NYC“Artists Against Fracking.”
What have you done that may surprise your classmates?
In 2009, I did a segment of the Tour de France with 9,500 other bike racing wannabes. We started in the village of Montelimar and finished after 104 miles and 12,000 ft of climbing at the summit of Mount Ventoux. I rode 3,300 miles – with 120,000 ft of climbing – over 9 months to prepare for the event.
How do you stay connected to The Cooper Union?
I have to say that I am one of those people who have been hot and cold about Cooper over the years, and remained uninvolved for many of them even though I live directly across the street. The current crisis brought back memories of the struggles we had back in the 70s, and so I recently decided to re-engage. I supported the effort of the students striking and The Working Group. I expect to become more involved in the Alumni Association and The Cooper Associates, especially if I am elected to the Alumni Council.