9 PM, May 1, 2016
An image comes to mind of Jen de los Reyes sitting with Angela Davis in my office. Angela had just finished giving her keynote speech at the Oakland Museum of California’s Open Engagement 2016. I was impressed but not surprised by Angela’s sophistication and charisma. She talked about art’s radical role in society. The job of the artist is to imagine possibilities never before seen and, in so doing, can provide alternatives to existing inequities. She asked the audience—largely made of young artists and organizers—to be mindful of how we think of time. The need to act is urgent yet she advised patience and wisdom. The impact of our actions can come to fruition generations from now.
Jen and Angela had never met before. There was immediate warmth between them. I suspected meeting Angela was a personal thrill for Jen. I was grateful that bringing Open Engagement to Oakland resulted in Jen being rewarded by connecting with someone she admired. Jen is owed so much for establishing, growing, and sustaining Open Engagement all these years.
In turn, I believe Angela’s comfort with Jen indicated a recognition that Open Engagement aligned with her values in some fashion. When I invited Angela to speak months earlier, I was concerned I hadn’t adequately explained social practice in a way that naturally connected it to the social justice work Angela is known for. Angela’s experience of Jen and the remarkable Open Engagement community that night may have proven my point for me.
This memory of Jen and Angela helps me now that I reflect upon what it means to have Open Engagement end. There’s some irony here because the last three years can be seen as an accomplishment of sorts. A scrappy artist led initiative that started ten years ago has, in the last three years, been embraced formally by a national consortium of institutions—the Oakland Museum of California, University of Illinois at Chicago, the Queens Museum, and A Blade of Grass. I’ve also seen Open Engagement’s participants broaden and expand. In additions to artists, Open Engagement now serves and gives sustenance to educators, curators, funders, activists, and other kinds of cultural workers worldwide.
Like many others I’m sure, I cling to the hope that some unforeseen set of circumstances and people will take up what Open Engagement has established. There remains a need for the care of socially engaged art. Realistically, however, we have to prepare for the eventuality that nothing like Open Engagement ever arises again. So it’s time to keen. The Open Engagement community will need to mourn its loss and grapple with being a diaspora. Despite this, there is still a chance to seed the future. We can acknowledge and support each other wherever we cross paths. We can find opportunities to build enclaves where Open Engagement’s brave and generous spirit is kept alive and nurtured for the benefit of other generations.
—René de Guzman
Director of Exhibition strategy and Senior Curator of Art
Oakland Museum of California