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Per My Last Email:

of Frustration,
Hope, and

By Jen Delos Reyes

My inbox is a site of joy.
My inbox is a space of dread.
My inbox is part of my work as a writer,
educator, activist, and organizer in the world.
My inbox is a site of revolution.

An email can be a direct action.
An email can model change.
An email can enact healthy and honest communication.

When I received the invitation from Creative Time to “really provoke the art world to move into new practices,” I knew I would choose the site of email as a space of daily change. Email is the harbinger of disappointment, carrier of messages from the failed systems, and emblematic of the fact that we are the institution. These messages move between us as individuals, and in that direct connection to institutions, and back again, reminds me of what Andrea Fraser wrote in 2005 From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique:
“Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us,’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship—above all, self-censorship— which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it. It’s not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art. It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to. Because the institution of art is internalized, embodied, and performed by individuals, these are the questions that institutional critique demands we ask, above all, of ourselves.”

What if before each email sent a representative of an institution had to ask themselves that series of questions? How does their message, what they are about to communicate, reflect what kind of culture they seek to uphold? As someone who has written a lot of emails on behalf of an organization I founded, I do not take this suggestion lightly.

Beginning in 2012 I tracked how many emails I sent related to Open Engagement (OE). On average I sent 4000 emails a year on this subject alone. In 2014 I sent and archived 4553 emails connected to the conference. The emails continued steadily at around that rate until the final official conference in 2018. If I spent an average of 4 minutes per email (which let us be honest, this work takes more time) that would equal 302 hours per year, which translates into about eight weeks of full-time labor just on emails. And this doesn’t even factor in the emails I write for my full time job as an administrator, this is only for email related to OE. My rough estimate would be that from 2006 when I began Open Engagement through 2019 during the year we took off for rest and research, that I have spent over 3500 hours on emails related solely to OE. That translates into about 88 weeks of full-time labor, or put another way, 31 full weeks of all the waking hours of my life.

In 2015 in Chicago I was at a lecture by the poet and Black studies scholar Fred Moten. In his talk 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 that I have held with me since. I know that as a writer, an arts administrator, and as a human in this world, so much of how I am asked to communicate is through email, so how can I do it with beauty, grace, and true solidarity? What follows are just two of many examples from my inbox of how I have tried to do just that. How I have used it as a space to both push institutions to change, but have also commiserated, and shared my frustration, sadness, and disappointment in the systems that we continue to be complicit participants in.

The first is an email in response to a request from the NEA to serve as a jury reviewer, the second a response to an applicant who did not receive a fellowship of which I was publicly one of the reviewers for.

Names have been redacted for privacy.

April 5, 2019
Hello _____,

I appreciate that you value my insight and experience enough to invite me to participate in this review process. The NEA is doing important work, and there are sadly not many avenues of support like this left. I especially see such deep value in letting artists and cultural workers lead the decision making process for granting funds.

It is with my belief in a vision of a sustainable artist led culture that I must decline this invitation. In joining this jury of my peers, the estimated 40 hours of review labor would break down to roughly $7.50/hour  (which as of January 1, 2019 is less than minimum wage in all but 18 states). And while I appreciate the additional compensation of $200.00 to attend the online training and the remote panel review meeting, I have no problem saying that I deserve a more fair and just hourly rate that aligns with years of experience, training, and institution building and serving.

I know many people who I deeply admire and respect have essentially donated their time to take on this work, but I believe that we need to begin to collectively say no to these types of practices so that we can begin to say yes to a culture that truly values, supports, and cares for artists.

Yours in the continued struggle for equitable support for the arts, and artists,

Jen Delos Reyes 

December 18, 2021
Dear _____,

Thank you for reaching out for feedback on your application for the fellowship, and in particular on your submitted work. I want you to know that the problem is not your work, it is the entire non-profit industrial arts complex that reifies and embodies harmful systems and beliefs around competition, and scarcity. This goes beyond this institution, of which I love and value deeply.

I believe in their mission, which is why despite my feelings around grants, fellowships, and the like, I do this work of peer review for them. I want you to know I sincerely wanted all the applicants to receive the fellowship in the same way that I want us all to thrive and succeed beyond the constructs of the art world.

Perhaps I am projecting my own frustration and disappointment onto your request for feedback, and likely I am writing this because I need to hear this as well—the best support and feedback I believe I can offer is to continue to do work that matters to you, your communities, your values, and beliefs and to do your best to not let it be changed by others who have resources that you may not have at this moment.

I want to share with you that as someone who led a beloved and needed organization that was dedicated to serving as a site of care for the field of socially engaged art for thirteen years I was faced again and again with feelings of failure as I was not able to raise the funds needed to sustain the work.

I knew as I moved forward in my work I was no longer interested or able to engage with the nonprofit industrial complex to support and validate the work I was doing in the world. I also wanted to do work that is at the scale of my life, smallness, steeped in pleasure, and values aligned. How this has manifested is as Garbage Hill Farm and SIDE by SIDE, both located at my home in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

I was recently nominated for a fellowship for women, trans and non-binary artists engaged in pressing social issues, specifically those who offer alternate visions and meaningful interactions through their creative practices. The committee reviewed the work I am engaged in now in my neighborhood, home, and literally my backyard. I did not receive it.

I am no longer a leader in the field of socially engaged art, heading an organization, I am just working the field which is my backyard, trying to grow food for myself, my neighbors, community pantries, and a small group of subscribers to an 18 week community supported art and agriculture CSAA.

And while this and two other recent rejections around financial support for this work could lead me to believe that I need to change something to make it more desirable or palatable for funders, I am choosing to put my energy instead towards doing the work that I know needs to be done.

It is my sincere hope that you do not get discouraged by this rejection, and I hope that if you feel it would be a great opportunity for you that you apply again next time. But more than anything what I want for you, for us, to continue to do is work that matters to us, and for the people we know our work touches.

Thank you for taking the time to share your work with me, and the other committee members. I am so thankful you are doing what you are doing, and I wish that I was able to express that monetarily, but hope that this letter provides an alternate form of support through my gratitude, and hope that we all find ways to continue to do our work and keep going regardless if others cannot support us.

In love and solidarity,
Jen Delos Reyes

Jen Delos Reyes
She/ Her/ Hers
Chicago, IL

Jen Delos Reyes is a 'farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts,' educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. She is defiantly optimistic, a friend to all birds, and proponent that our institutions can become tender and vulnerable. Delos Reyes is currently in Chicago, IL where she is living at SIDE by SIDE, a future residency for BIPOC arts and culture leaders and artists to rest and rejuvenate, and cultivating Garbage Hill Farm, the onsite Community Supported Agriculture and Art program that supports the endeavor. She is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she works to promote arts education access at the city’s only public research university.


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