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Bahamian art: Presenting. Uniting. Educating.

Mixed Media Blog

Stay Current: The end of a tiny but powerful art department at Baha Mar

There has been much back and forth across board tables and oceans, between politicians and businesspersons and over the airwaves. For months, there have been demands for definitive answers over Baha Mar, and none have come. The confusion mounted last week, when 2,000-plus people were made redundant, among them a small but mighty and united team known as The Current.

Led by former Baha Mar Creative Director John Cox, The Current was the art department in charge of filling the mega resort’s five grand hotels with Bahamian art. The team came together in December of 2013, initially with only three members. It was electronically disbanded last week via a series of emails informing each person that he or she had been made redundant.

The early days
Cox left the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) in December 2013 after accepting a post at Baha Mar as creative director. He had been asked to undertake something that had never been done before in the country.

“They wanted every moment of art on this property to be Bahamian, and they wanted someone to coordinate that,” he said. “At first, I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But they said they wanted it to be 100 percent Bahamian, and they did.”

The idea of establishing an art department run by local professionals who would curate every space at the resort came directly from Baha Mar founder Sarkis Izmirlian.

Cox was given a considerable degree of autonomy and trust in developing an art collection and program, fostering relationships with creatives and establishing Baha Mar as part of the creative community. He hired Richardo Barrett and Cydney Coleby to help develop The Current’s methodology. A few months later, Khia Poitier and Sonia Farmer joined the team, which over time grew to include Nastassia Pratt and Piaget Moss, along with other young rolling stones and creative professionals.

It was this fresh group with new ideas and ways of working that energized Cox and, often, made the experience worth it.

“The best thing about it was definitely the team,” recalled Cox. “What we had to do was very difficult, and the environment that we had to do it in could be very distracting; we were around a lot of people who didn’t really understand what we were doing. The highlight was the fact that I was able to rally together a group of young creatives and see them operate at the highest level.”

Offering Bahamian artists an unprecedented platform for exposure was another of the job’s perks. Cox recalled a sense of deep satisfaction “when you were able to call or email an artist and let them know their work was being used”.

Jordanna Kelly, a recent College of The Bahamas graduate, was one of the artists who got a call from The Current.

“Two days after I graduated, I got an email from John (Cox), and he told me, ‘We want you to come in for an interview. We want to tell you something.’ And they told me that they wanted me as an artist for hire. I was blown away. I was so afraid. I was so overwhelmed that they had the confidence in me to do this huge project,” she recalled.

Growing pains
Together, the members of The Current adjusted to the workings of the corporate world – something most of them had not been exposed to before. They crossed professional bridges, compromising on things they had not compromised on before.

“They gave us a portfolio in the beginning, a design package. They had the design, the layout and renderings of the spaces. There were challenges because no artist wants to match his or her artwork to a couch,” said Cox. “Artists started to create site-specific works. And sometimes, if the artwork was strong enough, it would influence the entire space.”

While the massive project’s missed deadlines made headlines, The Current focused on meeting its commitments on time. Routinely, proposals of artwork to fit in with every space of each of the five hotels would be presented to Baha Mar’s ownership for approval. The team managed a portfolio of 65 Bahamian artists, several of whom were based internationally.

Despite its bureaucratic hurdles, The Current did its job phenomenally. The team got an artist-in-residency program up and running. Its first residents, Piaget Moss and Veronica Dorsett, were the stars of the inaugural exhibition at Baha Mar, “Buildings Are People Too”. It established three gallery spaces at the resort, which was still unopened. Young and emerging artists were invited to learn the business of doing art.

“The greater Baha Mar team was all pretty impressed by our team. Sarkis allowed us to operate with such autonomy. We were our own department, though we were technically under the marketing department,” said Cox.

Warning signs

Being the brainchild of Izmirlian, The Current felt like a safe space. Its team members had established a close relationship with the CEO and Baha Mar President Tom Dunlap, who could also be found visiting The Current’s office and exhibitions.

“We were essentially Sarkis’ baby,” explained Barrett. “He put a lot of effort, time and energy into The Current. We could have emailed him and gotten a response within 10 minutes. People don’t get that kind of treatment.”

According to Cox, the Current’s members didn’t feel a sense of unease until after the resort missed its March 27 opening date.

“And then the public discourse got ugly,” he said. “You could see the obvious slow-down of productivity… And it slowly spiraled into this thing. It was like a slow-motion car accident that took five months to play out.”

The realization that something was seriously amiss didn’t hit home until a day in June when Baha Mar’s corporate offices sent out mass emails informing employees that they should leave the premises. The company was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“I felt a moment of dread because I felt there was no going back at that point,” said Farmer. “That was probably the scariest moment, and then the weeks following were very stressful because we had to return all of the loaned artwork to artists. Every day we would come in to try to do damage control without having any control over what happened.”

At that point, Farmer’s main focus was securing payment for commissioned artists. She didn’t know that many of them could not be paid in full because there was no money and no agreement from the days of negotiations. The convoluted process resulted in new levels of confusion. Some artists were given almost the full sum of money for works that never came into the resort’s possession. Many artists – particularly those who designed and built site-specific works – are today grappling with the fact that they may never receive complete payment.

Work for The Current slowed to a crawl over the coming months. Barrett left The Current for a post as assistant curator at the National Art Gallery. Farmer stopped going into the office in September. She and Cox waited for the announcement that a deal had been made and they could return.

In October, she received an update as she sat in her car listening to the radio.

“I thought at first it was breaking news that they had reached a deal, and I got very excited for one second. And [the talk show host] said Baha Mar just fired 2,000 workers and my excitement went to hopelessness and despair in a split second. And I knew that I had been fired before I even checked my email.”

The end of a commitment to advancing something so close to their hearts was a hard fall for the members of The Current.

“I put a lot of creative energy into this job. I write and I have my own printing press, and I neglected all of that to do this,” said Farmer. “I never thought it would be like this, that we could get so close. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to pay artists. To come so close and then be stopped is very difficult for me to handle, and I think for the team too.”

For participating artists, too, the resort’s shutdown came as a blow. At Baha Mar, Kelly’s works involved a variety of media. She had been collaborating with a team in the U.S. to provide many of the materials, which could not be found locally.

“Whenever I drive past there (Baha Mar) I have a sick feeling in my stomach,” said Kelly. “I had to call my team in the States and tell them what was happening. That really was like a bullet to the chest.”

Barrett reflected on Baha Mar’s charm for so many members of the Bahamian Diaspora.

“Baha Mar had a quality that brought a lot of Bahamians back to The Bahamas. There were a lot of people who hadn’t been back to The Bahamas in over 10 years, and Baha Mar brought them back,” he said. “We took on a lot of artists who were based internationally. We gave them a reason to invest in their homeland. I just hope that all of that doesn’t go to waste.”

These days Cox spends his time at PopopStudios – an art studio and gallery he founded long before his time at Baha Mar. An active hub, Popop demonstrates its commitment to the development of the creative community through its residency programs and regular exhibitions.

While he, like his team, is wishful of what could have been at Baha Mar, Cox thinks the experience can be a catalyst for the artist community.

“We learned a heck of a lot. We worked very hard, and my hope is that we can put some of that to good use in the future. Who knows what could happen now, and that’s kind of exciting,” he said.

“I think it was a big step in the right direction for creatives in the country. I feel like we owe it to each other and to the community to succeed. We need to move away from this and be awesome at something.”