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Written by Elisa Turner, BT Contributor   
July 2020

A digital platform captures Miami’s creative landscape

GArtFeature_1rowing up in Cincinnati, artist and arts champion Ray Elman vacationed summers at the Sans Souci Hotel on Collins Avenue when the place was shiny and new. But by Elman’s 18th birthday, he could no longer bear the sun-splashed luster. “I thought Miami Beach was the shallowest place I had ever encountered,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m never coming back here again.’”

Two years before, a grand tour abroad with his parents had spurred an insatiable hunger for art and culture. “It opened my eyes,” he remembers. They traveled to London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Israel, and Moscow.

Next stop after Cincinnati was the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.S. in economics and an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business. At Penn he also took studio art classes, later taking more at New York University.

In the 1970s until moving to Miami, he lived and worked in the Northeast, for a time leading digital communications at a global accounting firm. Meanwhile, Provincetown’s renowned arts colony at the tip of Cape Cod had for years lured the artist in him. There Elman created portraits of artists and writers, becoming co-founding publisher of Provincetown Arts magazine.

Decades passed. Miami Beach no longer looked shallow. When Elman and wife Lee became South Florida snowbirds in 2001, they enjoyed front-row seats for watching, he recalls, “this extraordinary explosion of all the arts communities in Miami.

“I was struck by somehow Miami had the biggest art fair in the United States, the biggest book fair -- and not just the biggest, but the highest quality. It had an extraordinary film festival and all kinds of related events, like the Jewish film festival and Hispanic film festival.”

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He continues, “I’ve been trying to get a handle on the fact that the arts community doesn’t have to be seen as just people who live and work here. People in the arts from all over the world come here and contribute. They take something from our diverse art cultures of Miami back to where they live, so there’s this continual ebb and flow of talent through Miami that wouldn’t happen in, say, Cincinnati.”

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As artist and publisher of arts magazines in Cincinnati and Provincetown, Elman wondered what role he could play here. He found his answer in 2012, when the couple settled full time near Miami Beach. “I realized,” he remembers, “that the one thing Miami lacked was a high-quality, in-depth arts publication.”

Serendipitous circumstances led him to Brian Schriner, dean of the FIU College of Communication, Architecture + the Arts, who supported the idea of creating an arts publication. Inspired by The New Yorker’s digital platform, Elman’s concept evolved as he worked with FIU students and professionals. In 2015 the first edition of Inspicio (pronounced een-spee-cho) was launched via its website and e-magazine accessible by iPhone and iPad. Subscriptions are free.

To date he’s published 170 video interviews, or “portraits,” presenting important figures in the arts with ties to Miami. They’re loosely akin to his mixed-media portraits melding photography and painting techniques. Each video interview is broken into short segments focused on specific topics; people might be asked to identify their role models or describe a challenge they’ve handled successfully. Those he’s shot on video include poet Richard Blanco, artist Michele Oka Doner, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Jane Smiley, and Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez.

ArtFeature_5His FIU colleague, historian John Stuart, applauds the interdisciplinary focus. “I think Ray is the best of the liberal arts tradition in America, this idea that you’re a good person and have a broad range of interests,” he says. “You don’t see the disciplines as being silos, you see them as leaping-off points from one to the other.” Concerned that there may be too much specialization nowadays, he adds, “Ray is certainly one of the best examples of this interdisciplinary process. He’s a listener, a synthesizer, and he pulls together experiences that form community.”

Without Inspicio, Stuart continues, “this whole landscape of our history and artistic presence in South Florida would not be there. People often say Miami has no history.” Yet the history of Miami, incorporated in 1896, is huge, he argues: “It’s the recent past that’s hardest for people to value because it’s so new.”

The most recent Inspicio issue offers videos of activist film director Maria Giese, artist Mira Lehr, and jazz musician and former NASA astronaut Winston Scott speaking about their careers. As a Miami teenager, Scott performed with bands at Hampton House, a legendary Brownsville motel, restaurant, and lounge favored during segregation by famed Black figures in politics, sports, and entertainment, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Sammy Davis Jr. Prominent musicians stayed there after performing on Miami Beach, playing extra sets for locals.

In 2015, following a fifteen-year effort to prevent the severely deteriorated structure from being razed, the place reopened as Historic Hampton House, gleaming with a $6 million renovation funded largely by the county. Scott’s video is linked to those Elman took in 2018 and 2019 at the former motel. For Inspicio, Historic Hampton House founding director Enid Pinkney and others portray the exceptional history of Hampton House, which fell into disrepair after segregation ended, when Beach venues became available to Black residents and tourists.

Elman is an ardent Hampton House champion. “When I first went there, I was immediately blown away by the story of a place most people have never heard of,” he says, “Now it needs more programs and performances to once again call attention to it.” He won an Ellie award to create portraits of performers and patrons who recall the motel in its golden years during segregation; among them are Pinkney; vocalist Mary Hylor who sang there in her youth; and Khalilah Ali, former wife of Muhammad Ali.

Elman has donated these portraits to Hampton House, which he thinks is ripe for a book, film, and jazz festival. Reaching out to likely patrons, he hopes to “build awareness of it now, until there’s a critical amount and then all of a sudden it will snowball.” Perhaps, in these fraught days of the increasingly visible Black Lives Matter movement, he’s right.

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