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Supporting Thought-Provoking Art

Artist Lina Puerta’s ‘From Field to Table: Seven Tapestries Honoring Latino Farm Laborers from the American South’ was underwritten by 21c for the 2017 SFA fall symposium. Puerta’s exhibit focuses on overlooked and under-recognized Latino women and men who labor on farms in the American South. Submitted photo

When giving a dinner party, the host often installs a centerpiece that ties together the theme of the evening. Thanks to a $100,000 gift from the 21c Museum Hotels, the Southern Foodways Alliance will continue to showcase contemporary artists as the centerpiece of its annual fall symposium.

Founded by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, the 21c Museum Hotel group was created as a new model for integrating thought-provoking art into everyday life and expanding the audience for contemporary art. Incorporating artworks and exhibits into the SFA fall symposium, which focuses on foodways of the Southern region, is a perfect fit.

“The SFA tells stories inspired by the South and by Southern experiences,” said John T. Edge, SFA director. “Exhibiting artists like Lina Puerta in 2017, or amplifying our symposium theme through a reading-room installation like we did last year, offer us bold ways to engage our audiences and challenge them to think about issues like environment, class, race and gender in new ways.”

“Much like gathering for an incredible meal with good friends or new acquaintances, art ignites new ideas and sparks lively conversation,” said Sarah Robbins, COO of 21c Museum Hotel, which has hotels in Arkansas, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Others will be opening in Illinois and Iowa.

“The relationship with SFA not only upholds 21c’s mission of supporting both emerging and established contemporary artists, but their thoughtful programming also provides a platform for the kind of cultural discussion and exchange of thought that we work to evoke through the experience that we provide at each of our properties.”

A nonprofit institute at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, SFA began partnering in 2016 with 21c by exhibiting Arkansas-born artist Shea Hembrey, who incorporated storytelling and agricultural by-products in his featured work, a mixed media installation titled “The Secret Ingredient.”

The following year, artist Lina Puerta focused on overlooked and under-recognized Latino women and men who labor on farms in the American South in “From Field to Table: Seven Tapestries Honoring Latino Farm Laborers from the American South.” The form and visual composition of her paper-based mixed media works recalled Medieval-era tapestries.

In 2018, “Ghost of a Dream” illuminated SFA’s food and literature theme through a reading-room installation, constructed entirely of the disposable materials used to move food from farm to mouth. “Traveling through the Dawn of Day” repurposed easily disposed materials to make a room full of books, where visitors were invited to relax, read and reflect.

Symposium attendees engage in thought-provoking conversations spurred by the exhibits, while the artists benefit from the exposure the conference gives them and the networking and support that can bolster their careers.

SFA also produces a film about the artists. Shown at the symposium, at film festivals and distributed digitally, the films help garner new audiences for the work.

“For the artists, opportunities to make a new body of work are introduced at the conference, and then travel to other exhibition sites,” said Alice Gray Stites, 21c Museum director. “The artists and conference attendees make new connections and may find new inspirations and ideas through this interaction.

“At 21c, we believe that art is important to every community and seek to create platforms to share the vision and voices of today’s most dynamic artists from all over the world. Seeing and sharing contemporary art has the potential to foster not only deeper insights into ourselves, but also to generate empathy, a quality that nurtures connection and understanding on a personal, local and global level.”

The collaboration between the 21c Museum Hotels and the SFA was inspired by the 21c’s restaurant leadership team and chefs who have long attended the SFA fall symposium.

Robbins credits the SFA with marking the past and its influence on the region while focusing on the future.

“Through their mission, SFA has not only taken on the monumental task of chronicling our history, they work to keep us all focused on how diversity and emerging immigrant communities are continuing to shape the American South,” she said.

“The SFA is a narrative-making organization, focused on telling stories of the contemporary South,” Edge said. “We use humanities tools to tell those stories, focusing particular attention on people who have been forced to live and work at the margins of our society.

“Artists, like the ones Alice Gray Stites introduces to us, share that commitment to see with new eyes and tell old stories in transformative ways.”

Individuals and organizations can make gifts to the Southern Foodways Alliance or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture by mailing a check – with SFA or CSSC noted in the memo line – to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or giving online at https://give.olemiss.edu.

For more information, contact Nikki Neely Davis, executive director of development, at 662-915-6678 or nlneely@olemiss.edu.

By Mary Stanton Knight

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