Photo taken at Open Engagement Conference
Who or what do you hold space for? Thoughts from Open Engagement
By Melissa Hamilton


While in Chicago for the Open Engagement conference, I noticed a group of folks scribbling Sharpies across brown paper broadsides on the Peoria Street Walking Bridge. In bold, black letters, each sheet prompted participants to list the things they hold space for. After each entry, the broadsides were adhered to the stone wall of the walking bridge, so that with each step pedestrians could meet visible calls to create room for some of the world’s most vulnerable and often overlooked people, places, concepts, and causes.

The heel of my black oxford boot sets an almost-rhythmic pace as I walk by each broadside, the Sears Tower looming in the distance. They read: “WE HOLD SPACE FOR…”

  • black lives
  • public education
  • queer voice
  • native lives
  • disagreement
  • environmental protection
  • trans lives
  • healthcare reform
  • immigrants (from anywhere)
  • scientific research
  • fat folks
  • reproductive justice
  • the future

...And the list goes on.

This installation, a collaboration between Megan Young and Angela Davis Feegan, is just one scene at Open Engagement, the largest, artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around, and creating a site of care for, the field of socially engaged art. Itinerant in nature, this year’s conference is in Chicago and brought together hundreds of artists, activists, educators, students, institutions, and thinkers to explore the theme of JUSTICE.

So, what do brown paper broadsides and social change conferences have to do with CultureWorks?

Well, besides the fact that we had the pleasure of attending and presenting at Open Engagement (props to Trust member, Lovella Calica of Warrior Writers, who accompanied us), the conference’s call to action around justice is near and dear to our collective heart. With equity at the center of our theory of change, CultureWorks seeks to reduce costs and remove barriers to resources so that all folks can have a seat at a table.

In a world where the Arts are under fiscal-attack (but are increasingly needed to speak truth to power), management commons such as CultureWorks have the power to help artists and organizations not only survive, but thrive. They can ensure that folks have equity in access to the resources they need—beyond mere transactions—and that they feel heard, supported, and empowered to live out their creative and personal visions.

Whether through affordable workspace, strategic consultation, or comprehensive fiscal sponsorship, CultureWorks understands that artists are not a commodity, and that resource sharing can be revolutionary. Collaboration, equity, and justice can’t only be a result of artists’ work; they must be embedded in the organizations and institutions that support them!

At CultureWorks, we are working hard, alongside our members, to create a commons that is less about doing the work “for you” and more about doing the work “with you.” Together, we CAN build the artist community, infrastructure, and resources needed to free ourselves (or get each other free). We CAN change the landscape of Philadelphia and beyond. We can hold space for one another and remain accountable to the communities we serve.

Together, we are the bridge toward justice –  and we have the power to aid in the creation of a more just world. Onward!

* If you have the time, I encourage you to explore the full program for the conference here - as some really amazing work was being shared (shout-out to our Philly comrades in the mix: Black Quantum Futurism Collective, Institute of Contemporary Art, Leeway Foundation, and the Reentry Think Tank).

** Also, if you’re interested in seeing the video we screened as part of our presentation at Open Engagement, you can find it here. Created by CW member, Jos Duncan of Love Now Media, it features a handful of our fiscal sponsorship members.