Zachary Paul Levine, Mark Kelner and Ben Ostrower are friends and members of the Washington arts community. Jewish and in their 40s, they also share a fascination with public service posters from World War I and II.
Just as posters from those times of war — “I want you for U.S. Army,” “Let’s all fight — buy war bonds,” “We can do it!” — mobilized the public to act, the three thought they could rouse the citizenry to battle the coronavirus.
They called their beachhead the Viral Art Project — an online gallery for artists and graphic designers to submit pandemic-related poster art. More than 500 posters have been submitted since the site launched in March, with close to 300 on display at viralartproject.com and available for free download.
The posters promote mask-wearing, encourage donations of PPE to health care workers and urge social distancing and staying at home.
“And I think that’s a Jewish point of view in how problems get solved,” said Kelner, a graphic artist. “No one’s going to wait. And the issue is emergent, and we had to act.”
Kelner and fellow graphic artist Ostrower each contributed several posters to get things started. The trio then reached out to their network of friends and colleagues for submissions and talked up the project on Instagram.
“One of the benefits of having friends in art is that everyone is pretty much simpatico with reflecting what is going on socially in the world,” Kelner said. “And I think it’s my job as a visual artist to help express that through a very, very particular lens.
“I think what we did was really, really democratic,” Kellner added. “Ben and I came up with early posters just to get things off the ground. And then we just said, anyone who wants to can submit a poster. It kind of took off really, really quickly.”
Artists of various skill levels from around the world submitted posters, from professional, Portland, Ore.-based Aaron Draplin to Levine’s 7-year-old son, Misha.
“Everything that’s up on our website is equally worthy to be up there,” said Levine, a museum consultant. “And so it’s something that’s a great opportunity, especially for people who haven’t gotten the same type of recognition.”
In May, the group stopped accepting submissions after nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd broke out.
“The national narrative switched very abruptly from COVID to Black Lives Matter,” Ostrower said. ”It just didn’t feel necessarily appropriate to keep pushing it because the kind of urgency around activism and design was totally elsewhere.”
A few weeks ago the trio started selling some of the posters from a digital storefront on the site. Sixty percent of each sale goes to the artist, 20 percent goes to operational costs and the last 20 percent goes to The Soze Foundation’s Artist + Activist Relief Fund, which helps support artists and activists affected by the pandemic.
The trio said they could resume accepting submissions. For now, the site acts as a digital art gallery, showcasing pandemic-related art at a time when museums are closed to the public.
In the fall, the group plans to display about 200 posters at an outdoor installation at Culture House DC.
Long term, the three want the website to be an archive for this art and give future generations a sense of people’s responses to the pandemic. Fifty years from now they hope these posters will be looked at the same way people look at their beloved World War II posters today.
“We’ve created this wonderful mosaic that really is a museum of the moment,” Kelner said. “I’d be interested in how the story of the pandemic is going to be told. And I’m really hopeful that some of our images will make the cut.”