Curatorial Statement

“The only standard for judging socially engaged art should be how much justice it creates in the world.”  –– Rick Lowe

Justice is the theme of the 2017 Open Engagement Conference. The weight of historical injustice interrupts daily life nationally and internationally. There is no better time than now, and no better city than Chicago, for examining pathways to create justice and exploring the manifold artistic strategies that demand and enact fairness, and equality. Chicago is a city that is under the spotlight and in the news for horrific gun violence, devastating public school closures, and police brutality that is carried out with impunity. These are conditions, of course, that have been a part of black and working class peoples’ lives in our city and across this nation for a long time, but only most recently with the rapt attention of the media.

As the co-curators for OE 2017, we are committed to an exhilarating and expansive exploration of this year’s theme. We are equally committed to OE’s mission of creating a site of critical care and critical inquiry for the vast, complex and diverse field of individuals and organizations working at the intersections of art and activism.

There is a fierce urgency of now for artists and cultural workers who audaciously believe in the immense capacity of art to help shift our sense of what is possible, to unleash our radical imaginations, to model and experiment with new ways of being in the world, to enact social change.

We believe socially engaged art and artists challenge us and one another to ask trenchant questions, to reflect, to seek creative solutions, to hold nations and institutions and each other accountable. Some of the questions we encourage participants to grapple with, formally and informally, during the conference include the following:

  • What does it mean to work in solidarity with communities that are marginalized and the most challenged by racial, economic, and gender injustice around issues that impact them?
  • As artists, curators, and cultural producers, how are we implicated in the particular conditions we are working in, all the while engaged in challenging and changing these conditions?
  • The radical power of social practice has come in many respects from its inclusivity. But this promise has not yet been experienced in the lived realities of most people who make up the field. How do we push for more fair and equitable distribution of resources?
  • Is it possible to advance solutions and encourage actions in a social movement for justice while preserving one’s individual artistic practice?
  • What is the unique contribution that art and artists can make to the efforts to create a more just society? In what ways do we want to continue to insist on the differences between artistic practices committed to social justice and the organizing that is taking place in grassroots communities?

In solidarity with the organizers of Open Engagement, we will relentlessly push to ensure that the diversity of people who make up the ecology of social practice can be present at this year’s OE. Arundhati Roy has provocatively suggested the following: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” We want to hear from the widest possible range of stakeholders.

No justice, no peace,
Romi Crawford & Lisa Lee