An Open Letter on Open Engagement 2016 from Jen Delos Reyes

Chicago, IL
May 14, 2016

Distant friends,

I woke up at 3:00 am this morning with the dream that we could write each other beautiful, thoughtful letters in which we share our thoughts, open up dialogue, and support one another. There is a way we can talk to each other here that is different than public address. I have my own letter writing practice that was inspired by the poet and Black Studies scholar Fred Moten. I was once at a talk of his where he read several gorgeous, rich, and vulnerable emails he had written to his friends and colleagues. It was a reminder of how I want to communicate and how I want to reflect on what I encounter in my life. I send these letters almost every week to a group of about twelve friends and those letters all begin with the same greeting I have used here. If you are reading this letter I assume you are a friend or acquaintance of Open Engagement.

From one of Moten’s poems,
the absence of your letter
shines in absent distance.

While this was not a letter I had planned to write it feels long overdue. It has happened almost every year since Open Engagement began in 2007: people love to point out the whiteness of the conference, whether it be the presenters, the attendees, or the content itself. I have learned that this will happen even when, factually at this point, by assessing the statistics of our 264 presenters, we are a minority white conference. Even though Open Engagement published our data on the breakdown of presenters and local representation, reviews continued to quote statistics that were collected from Google searches on presenters done by an artist group not affiliated with OE, instead of the self-identified information collected by the conference. The reviews of the conference this year, in particular ones that have run on Temporary Art Review, focused heavily on diversity, access, and inclusion. I witnessed through my own networks of friends and professional acquaintances how different the comments and posts were between women of color who shared the reflections from Temporary Art Review, and white colleagues. While the latter mostly wanted to make the space to share their critical insights, I want to thank the women of color who posted very different questions to their social media, ones about movement building, resources and allies, and who made visible in all of this a point that is neglected over and over: Open Engagement is founded and directed by a woman of color. In response to a reflection written by multiple authors for Temporary Art Review on Open Engagement 2016 my friend Kemi Adeyemi shared the article and some of her thoughts:

How many people of color does it take for white people to not complain about whiteness? Or, put another way, when is the unpaid work a woman of color puts into organizing conferences keynoted by folks like Angela Davis “too white”? Or, put another way, how confusing is it to have people of color operate within institutions? Do people of color thinking, writing, and making have to do so OUTSIDE of institutions *in order* to be legible as effective or legitimate? Or, put another way, why don’t white people just do (and pay for) this radical work themselves instead of waiting/watching/expecting for us to do it “the right way”?

Her point hit close to home because she knows through friendship, proximity, and personal experience the intimate costs of what it takes to do the work of organizing. She also knows explicitly that I am the only person on the OE team that is not being paid for my work on the conference. I made a decision to donate my time in order to keep our costs lower and therefore be able to charge a lower entry fee. This is a classic example of what artist J. Morgan Puett calls a “martyr-don’t”. Until this year Open Engagement had been a free conference and I was prepared for a challenging transition to a paid model. What I had braced myself for was a critique of the cost of the conference.

There were some who publicly lamented the move to a paid model, even some that actively protested. But the reality is that the conference has never truly been free. In Marilyn Waring’s 1999 book Counting For Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth, she examines the unacknowledged and unaccounted labor of women on a global scale and makes visible these contributions. Acknowledging this aspect of the conference is also to ask: Why is this the case? Why is it that more men are not contributing more time and energy to making this site possible? At the end of the 2010 conference the volunteer planning committee stood up for a moment of recognition—every single member of the team was a woman. From the direction, to the graphic design, social media, selection committee members, and volunteers, year after year the overwhelming majority of the people who pushed Open Engagement forward were women. A large part of how we were able to pull off the conference was that very few people were paid for their work. (Starting with the 2014 conference in Queens, all of the OE team members are paid for their labor, including myself for 2014 and 2015. It was my decision this year to not be paid.)

Working with allies like A Blade of Grass, the Queens Museum and the rest of the newly formed Open Engagement National Consortium—the Oakland Museum of California, the California College of the Arts, and the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago—we are working to move this conference forward in a way that reflects our values, commitments, and beliefs, and a large part of that means valuing the labor that makes the conference possible. These groups contribute financially annually to help realize the conference, as well as taking turns acting as host and contributing staff time. However, this alone is not enough to adequately support the conference’s growth, sustainability, or to properly support the OE team.

There are those who are critical of why we choose to collaborate with institutional partners, and the formation of the Open Engagement national consortium. These relationships are necessary in building a sustainable movement. These are allies who are working collectively because they understand that movement building takes resources, energy, and collaboration to achieve sustainability.

It is safe to say that most people who attended the Angela Davis keynote on Sunday night of Open Engagement 2016 left with an affirmation that the work of artists is crucial in the work toward social justice. How can one evoke the words of Angela Davis’s call for softness and care and not have the capacity to model the loving criticality this field and world so desperately needs? If we are truly going to be able organize and support one another so we can move toward radical change, we need to enact our values in the world through our actions. While it creates an important site of reflection, writing think pieces on radical organizing is not the same as doing the important work of building community. Over the years the conference has been praised for embodying its values. It is not a typical conference. It creates feelings of openness, support, and care. The conference values multiple ways of knowing and sharing. The work of artists is directly built in to the structure of the event. There is a focus on local and community investment. The conference is organized through an open call for proposals, which are selected by diverse committees comprised of artists, educators, funders, professionals, and community members. When the conference receives criticism delivered without properly researched knowledge of the planning process, compassion, or a spirit of camaraderie, it can impede a movement, instead of building up systems of support. As Angela Davis stressed, it is possible to have criticality and care.

At 5:30 am, as I began to wrap up this letter, my friend Randall Szott had just posted a quote from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s essay, “This Present Paradise”:

Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.

Szott’s post reaffirmed my belief that Open Engagement continues to be a necessary and critical convening for all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. What makes it so critical is not its ability to hold and generate academic reflection, but to serve as a site of care. Open Engagement operates from a place of love, and a desire to create space to build up a community of support for the people engaged in this crucial work. We are asking ourselves challenging questions around local context, representation, access, inclusion, diversity, and community value as we work with you to build this site. In our work it is necessary that we enact what we value and what we want to see in the world. To continue the above quote, recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is just what we need now.

All love, always, in all the ways,



About the contributor: Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Jen Delos Reyes

Photo by Gemma Rose Turnbull