On Sunday February 7, 2016, the date that will now forever be known as the day a politically aware and majestic Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, an article written by Daniel Grant ran in the Education/Life section of the New York Times titled “For These Pieces Hold the Paint: Social Practice Degrees Take Art to a Communal Level.” The Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University (PSU), where from 2008-2014 I taught and was for the majority of my time there the Co-director and Chair, was heavily featured in the article. Before joining the faculty at PSU, I also founded the largest annual international conference on socially engaged art, Open Engagement. My background as the director of this conference, my intimate knowledge of the program at PSU, and my position in the world as a woman of color led me to read the article (one of the first circulating these ideas to a broad and mainstream readership) and wonder who gets to speak for socially engaged art? Whose voices are privileged? And what types of projects get circulated?Social practice feels as though it could hold the potential to change the world. As Harrell Fletcher stated in the article, many artists working in this way could be described as politically progressive, some “fairly extreme in their anticapitalism.” I would say that much of the ethos behind this way of working as an artist is about re-evaluating and challenging systems of power. It is about the value of art in daily life and the belief that art is for everyone, not just the elite. Its commercial value can be slim as much of the time this kind of work might not look like art at all. This work promotes agency in artists, it is made alongside and with it’s intended audience and necessitates being in the context of the world.
Because social practice can be so seemingly outside of what we have traditionally framed as art it often has a problem with tone and form. Artists wishing to tackle the most pressing and serious issues of our time sometimes land on a dinner party, or a walk as a way of addressing these problems. While I believe that real change can emerge from seemingly small gestures, it is undeniable that there are clear tropes that have emerged in socially engaged art. One of the most troubling things for me in the New York Times piece was that while Grant talked about social practice’s historic connections to figures like community organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky—whose work was able to help lend power to the voices of so many who have been disenfranchised, that one of the main projects of graduates of the PSU MFA program that was featured was “Grocery Stories”, a project installed at a locally owned Portland boutique chain grocery store, giving voice to artisanal cheese makers. I know from first hand experience that the PSU MFA program has produced projects and artists that deal with immigrant rights, housing justice, shifting institutional power, LGBTQIA communities, and media access. As I read I wondered where was the radical work? Why were only white students highlighted? In addition to this omission of these student projects, there was a lack of diversity in the interviewed leaders in the field ranging from program directors, to chief curators—many of these voices representing the usual suspects for social practice.
Grant’s article ends with a sentence that is undoubtedly supposed to elicit a response and understanding in the reader about the new level of awareness that the students and artists working in this way have achieved, “They shuffle, reach, grasp the air, and ultimately open their eyes.” If this is a practice that is truly woke I would hope that it would not continue to perpetuate the models of the dominant art world that continue to exclude women and people of color. In 2013 The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimated that 5% of artwork currently on display in the United States was made by women, and the famous Guerrilla Girls poster outlining the breakdown of artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 Whitney Biennials show that the numbers of women of color included in the art world are significantly less. Jillian Steinhauer’s article for Hyperallergic titled, “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial” shows that sadly little has changed in almost two decades.
In April the 8th Open Engagement will feature Keynote speakers Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy. This edition of the conference is the first in a trilogy that will explore the themes of POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY, 2016 in Oakland at Oakland Museum of California, 2017 at University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2018 back at the Queens Museum in NY. Open Engagement has worked alongside practitioners and institutions to make sure that the conference symbolically and literally is as capacious as the art by spanning geography, recognizing spaces both inside and outside the academy, and embracing all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. These struggles are continual and each year we acknowledge that this work is never done—that is the nature of social change. As the Associate Director of the UIC School of Art & Art History currently developing socially engaged curriculum at a large public urban research university, I hope that within this freshly institutionalized area of art making that has its roots in activism, social justice, and community organizing, the promise and values that I see in social practice will hold space in the art world for all of us. Before my own time at Portland State University ended I was told by an older white male tenured colleague that I had, “become too visible, and was taking too much credit for the work I was doing.” If we can’t shift these paradigms of oppression and fight these inequities within our own field, what hope do we fare when we take on the world?
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 Chicago.