In the midst of Art Basel’s hectic run of cultural events this past week, the Betsy Hotel in South Beach hosted a thought-provoking salon on Thursday afternoon, deftly touching on the intersection of art and one of the more sensitive social issues of our time.
The salon accompanied the exhibition Rebuilding the City: AKA Black Lives Matter, a creation of Baltimore’s Morgan University Visual Arts Department by the Black Lives Matter Inside Out Group Action Initiative. Organized in 2012 as a visual response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which formed following the murder of Trayvon Martin, it provokes a very timely conversation about what it means to be human.
As a part of the Betsy’s innovative literary series, the salon invited Dr. Leslie King Hammond (who served as Dean of Graduate Studies at Maryland Institute College of Art for over 30 years, retiring as Dean Emeritus last year) to host the roundtable discussion. Hammond still maintains an active role in the arts community, and is currently The Betsy’s Visual Arts Ambassador (since 2009) and a Senior Fellow at the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation in Baltimore.The latter title made her an especially exciting guest to be hosting the salon in The Betsy’s Knight Foundation-funded Writer’s Room – the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, like the Knight Foundation, serves as the mid-Atlantic’s champion of social change and innovation through mediums such as the arts.
Accompanied by an all-star panel of artists, Dr. Hammond explored a range of themes within and attached to the exhibit, many of which illuminated the often-invisible restrictions encountered in the daily lives of Black Americans.
While not the first panelist to be interviewed, Chris Metzger, the main creator behind the project, was a pillar in the salon’s execution: all themes tied back to his involvement. As an artist and educator, he was inspired by JR’s TED prize-winning project titled Inside Out and he worked with his own students to make it happen. Rebuilding the City includes a total of 42 portraits composed of 35 students, two faculty members, three staff members, one alumni, and one baby, all posted onto the façade of a warehouse in Baltimore. The power in these projects comes as much from the placement of these images as the images themselves in order to communicate something more physically and emotionally effective than words. On his project Metzger comments, “Given the recent events unfolding on college campuses around the country, I feel as though our project was a precursor to what we’re currently witnessing here in America.”
Two of the other panelists included a mother and son, Deborah Willis, professor and the Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and her son, Hank Willis Thomas, whose work as a visual artist and photographer concentrates on race, advertising, and popular culture in relation to the African American community. His video art installation, Question Bridge: Black Males, narrowed the discussion to be gender specific, aiming to represent and redefine the Black male identity in America, it connected back to the question of what it means to be human and how people can make a change using visual art. The project started as a documentary-styled video art installation, but eventually expanded to include a website and mobile app, smartly utilizing a contemporary lens to present contemporary issues.
The artist Christopher Cozier, whose project “The Arrest,” is currently on display at the Betsy’s B Bar gallery, discussed his use of images and narratives in order to shed light on disparities such as wealth and education in Caribbean society. Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Founder, Curator, and Director of Diaspora Vibe Gallery, contributed to the region-specific focus on the Caribbean, but also added occasional nuggets of wisdom throughout the roundtable, lauding the courageous work of the artists surrounding her. She hit the nail on the head. Given the immense relevance of the artists’ works, salons of this nature need to be far more commonplace and high profile, and venues like the Betsy are courageous for hosting them. Though each artist spoke briefly, each ignited a plethora of ideas worth investigating further, revealing the richness of such art and its social commentary. The very initiation of dialogue across culture, age and gender nurtures the fabric of a society as diverse as South Florida, and as Dr. Hammond noted in her closing remarks, is exactly how profound change is born in the world.
The Betsy Hotel on South Beach hosted Rebuilding the City: AKA Black Lives Matter as a part of their 2015 Art Basel program. Other events included a salon celebrating Judith Mason’s new book, The Mind’s Eye: An Introduction to Making Images (Books&Books press, 2015), Dec 2., and a book signing with MacArthur Award-winning Photographer Deborah Willis Dec. 3. The hotel is applauded as “the country’s only hotel to be run on a platform of philanthropy, arts, culture and education,” and articulates its mission as being to “transform public spaces into gathering places … to engage in things that matter.” Such a platform is a compelling one in a tourism-driven city like Miami Beach; where so much is valued for its show, the Betsy will remain a forum of substance.
Visit www.thebetsyhotel.com/culture for more information regarding upcoming events, visiting artists, and arts and culture updates in South Beach.