Saturday’s and Sunday’s Open Engagement conference events inhabited the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Attendees and presenters came from different places on the spectrum between art and activism. There were art administrators focusing on funding structures, museum educators focusing on equity and inclusion, artists thinking about the applied ethics of various projects, and activists who use art as a component in their programs.
One of the earliest panels of the day brought together voices from both North Lawndale and Englewood. Norman Kerr, a presenter from UCAN’s violence prevention program in North Lawndale and The Peace Hub1, a collaboration between community-based small groups, spoke about the level of care that is required to help at-risk youth. Kerr stated that “the response should be mental health services, instead it’s law enforcement.” But with trained trauma counselors and plenty of interaction, the kids are 73% arrest free and 38% get some mental health services. Following up on a question Mr. Kerr stressed that for community allies it is both resources and consistent support that are needed. Members of the Englewood Arts Collective, Joe Nelson, Sterling Price, Tanya Ward and Tonika Johnson, began by emphasizing that the entire neighborhood is not a victim or perpetrator of violence, but the stereotype of violence becomes the dominant narrative. The art collective’s members actually met outside of Englewood, traveling elsewhere in Chicago to find engaging cultural programs. The collective stressed the need for an arts hub as a necessary goal in itself, not just as a response to trauma. Tonika Johnson, a street photographer, felt that permanent art spaces embedded in the local community use their shared understanding to make activism more immediate and less susceptible to reactionary caricature. “If you give the community tools to make art for art’s sake, you will see the issues emerge.” Sometimes people in neighborhoods like Englewood are pushed to only feel relevant when the topic is violence.
During the Q&A, Los Angeles-based performer Catherine “SCOTI” Scott, reminded the young Englewood group of their “fierce legacy” in the Black Arts Movement. Scott encouraged them to research and reactivate community art and public space models from earlier generations of black culture. Here the role of history is to help reimagine possibilities in the present. Some of that very fierceness was on view at the Chicago Cultural Center where Eugene Eda’s 32 doors for Malcolm X College are on view. Eda’s towering door murals livened up the halls of the imposing International Style school building with images of black education and power. The mainly figurative doors mix past and present, with contemporary people depicted in the advanced study of science, medicine, and engineering combined with historical forms from classical African cultures from Ghana, Egypt or Nigeria. Here the excellence of history, of pre-European African ingenuity served as an inspiration for generations of students.
Elsewhere, different panels or working groups tackled specific issues related to social practice, from documentation practices to non-hierarchical organizational structures or equitable funding. The practical panels highlighted some of the tension between entering and engaging with communities as outsiders and other difficult pragmatics of actual change. The “Photography & Social Practice Workshop” held by Eliza Gregory, Anthony Luvera, and Gemma-Rose Turnbull, solicited group ideas around best practices for socially engaged uses of photography. Photography in this context was viewed as an important tool for learning and sharing. When done well its storytelling power can change a dominant narrative. Activists constantly negotiate between the need to represent what they do against the need to create authentic transformational experiences. One suggested method turns program participants into their own documentarians both allowing for organic and surprising images by not creating a hierarchy between the person in front of and behind the camera.
Returning to the theme of Justice was a panel called “Working Through A Wall” about arts programming with incarcerated artists and writers. A former student of the Prison Neighborhood Art Project (PNAP)2while in Stateville prison, Earl Walker talked about how the art classes allow the men to hold on to their humanity in an intentional way. Prisoners have to prioritize the classes because of their limited schedules. The men don’t always realize that they have the capability until the teachers help them bring out that awareness. Artist and PNAP co-founder Sarah Ross stated that the program is not only for the prisoner’s transformation but also to raise awareness about endemic mass incarceration. Notably, the prisoners are also motivated to create awareness around the mass incarceration problem, especially in their former neighborhoods. Ross said that the classes work because “teachers and students are both accountable to make something that they are proud of and that serves both sets of interests.” This reciprocity is important for students to not feel like “subjects of study”. Another formerly incarcerated artist, Monica Crosby spoke about the Acting Out Theater troupe. Ms. Crosby felt that the theater class created spaces of solidarity not just between teachers and students, but between guards and inmates. In many ways, the prison experience is designed to break down one’s humanity, the physical confinement, the managed schedule, but simple things like theater practice and performance reinstill feelings of dignity as well as creating compassion in those who witness it.
Returning to the theme of justice inside the museum, a Saturday panel called “Whose Museum? Our Museum” discussed practical measures to create equitable hiring practices and community engagement. Amy Sadao, of the ICA Philadelphia, stated that “This is not an anarchist position. I think that taking over institutions, showing up and using the power of institutions is really important. You have to expect taking one step [forward] and then getting pushback. You do have to be careful not to be used as a kind of veneer for the continuance of the redistribution of resources and white supremacy.” Sadao continued “People of color know what it means to be tokenized by institutions.” The group conveyed that real commitment over time is what is needed to build inroads into various communities. Sadao said that while everybody says this in museums, the real key is that “you have to let the audience be able to direct the programming. You have to let your audience change the museum.” The panel returned often to the museum model’s colonial history of acquisition and display, noting also that curatorial practice implies a hierarchical “expertise” that makes addressing community interests difficult.
Lisa Dent of Creative Capital discussed a previous experience at a collecting institution,“Working with curators who were well trained and earnest, there is a way that they talk about professional, curatorial practice that is racist and sexist, by bringing in things in relationship to the collection and assessing the value.” Dent noted that she was required to select work for auction houses, like Sotheby’s or Christie’s, to value as a form of audit of the collection’s worth. The auction houses, in turn, use sales records to determine an artwork’s value. Dent said that it is not considered to be “good curatorial practice” to not look at sales record when purchasing a work for a museum. This then perpetuates any racist or sexist tastes in the art market and almost certainly doesn’t reflect the aesthetic values of the local community. Structurally, there are still a lot of problems with equality for the museum system to address.
Another theme running through the weekend was the heightened contrast between urban and rural arts initiatives, set off by the ideological charge of last November’s election. On the panel “The Rural Model: Community Engagement with an Underrepresented Population”, Su Legatt of the Morehead (Minnesota) Arts and Culture Commission stated that 25% of the nation lives in rural areas but receives 3-9% of the funding for cultural or art events. Rural places exist without the shadow or support of a major institution but this fact allows these DIY projects to work on longer timescales. Each of the participants reported a noticeable decrease in social, artistic and cultural events in rural areas. Matthew Fluharty, Executive Director of Art of the Rural3, talked about the dangerousness of one-dimensional depictions of rural communities. For instance, rural America is growing more diverse, 73% of rural population growth is non-white.
Some urban/rural similarities exist in problems of land usage where in rural areas large corporations own huge tracts of farmland and in urban areas developers hold empty urban lots, in both cases keeping the land out of the community’s hands. Other respondents described the “rural” as really meaning post-manufacturing, rather than the ideological agrarian, “good-ole-days” stand in for pre-Civil-Rights-era America. This tension was brought out in a question raised by an audience member from Los Angeles, asking that if they were to participate in an urban/rural exchange program, how the panelists would ensure their safety. While this assumes that rural spaces are not in general safe, surely some of them aren’t safe to certain groups of people. The hostility of the Republican rhetoric of “sending the National Guard into Chicago” served as a potent counterweight to notions of the rural as “traditional.” Ultimately rural arts initiatives have to engage their communities’ interest without playing into ideological notions that support the nostalgia for “normative” social values, white supremacy or nationalism.
Open Engagement did an admirable job linking to different Chicago sites and partners. Marisa Jahn, of Careforce One and other presenters, activated the Jane Addams Hull House Museum linking contemporary activism to turn of the century precedents. The evening events were held in spaces around the city; Friday at The Stony Island Art Bank with Party Noire, Saturday in Bridgeport at the Co-Prosperity Sphere featuring The Arts of Life Band, fashion by Rebirth Garments and dance music by TRQPITECA, and Sunday in Humboldt Park at the co-working space Reunion for Slo’Mo Party’s dance night. Sunday evening’s keynote took place in Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art. The conversation between Chicago-based artist Maria Gaspar and community organizer, writer, photographer Maria Varela began by discussing Varela’s work for the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee in the 1960’s. During this time she used photography to create records of their organizing activities and community training materials. Her photography is being exhibited at the NMMA in Time to Get Ready: Fotografía Social. Gaspar and Varela’s conversation centered around their different uses of art and photography, where Varela’s approach was much more documentary and Gaspar’s more creative. Gaspar described a portion of the 96 Acres project, about the presence of the Cook County Jail in Little Village, where they covertly projected letters written by inmates back onto the exterior wall of the prison for passersby to read. This more contemporary use of witnessing as a form of advertising-as-activism spoke to a difference in approach between the two generations. Also speaking to this difference was Varela’s confession that she had just recently learned the term “self-care”. Surprised, Gaspar asked about what the student committee did to keep going. “Drink a lot” Varela replied. The pleasure and poignancy of the Open Engagement weekend was its massive, omnivorous scope of action. The conversations linked practical measures with idealism, linked past examples with present realities, linked rural and urban geographies, and generally served as a meeting place and supportive network for exploring some of the art’s most difficult and important tasks.