By Gabriel Owens, contributor
The Atlanta Beltline Inc. held its third 2017 quarterly briefing Thursday night in Atlanta and focused heavily on a long-form apology to Atlanta residents for photos displayed near the Martin Luther King Blvd. section of the Westside trail.
The controversial display featured photos from Canine CellMates, a nonprofit that uses therapy dogs to help Fulton County Jail prisoners. Many residents felt the display was insensitive and reinforced negative stereotypes of incarcerated African-American males, four of whom were the subjects in the photos.
The photos “were a part of this year’s Art on the Atlanta BeltLine exhibit displayed in the community.” according to ABI’s official apology statement.
“Art on the Atlanta BeltLine was created to make art accessible to everyone by bringing the exhibit to public spaces and in doing so, be respectful of the community,” ABI said. “The photos that were displayed did not reflect our commitment to do that. The community is understandably and justifiably upset and for that we humbly apologize. We make no excuses and are in the process of investigating the process of how this occurred in order to take the most appropriate action to ensure this does not happen again. This includes seeking new ways to involve communities in the art selection process so that it is inclusive and respectful of their rich and vibrant history.”
Photographer Kelly Kline defended the photo exhibit.
“The reason why the imagery is so important is because it tells a true story of what is happening here in Atlanta,” she said. “These are men from Atlanta that are going through the incarceration process here in Atlanta. It’s their story and I believe their story deserves to be told.”
Additionally, the director of Canine CellMates explained the original photo exhibition was displayed in context. However, no context was given in its display on MLK Blvd.
“It was a trigger,” Jenna Washington, a Westside resident. “These images, regardless of intent, are going to be judged on [their] own merits. This was offensive and is the responsibility of the Beltline’s for allowing them.”
Washington also expressed her growing fears of gentrification, and how the images represented a sign that African-Americans aren’t going to be welcomed on the Beltline.
New ABI Chief Executive Officer Brian McGowan agreed with the criticism.
“I’ve only been on the job for five days, quite a start,” he said. “This has become a major issue for us, and goes against what I’ve wanted to establish [ABI]’s focus on: equity, affordability, and inclusion.”
McGowan recently replaced former ABI CEO Paul Morris.
McGowan and other Beltline officials, along with taking full responsibility for the exhibit being shown, explained further how the perceived oversight happened. With the sheer number of exhibits, Nathan Soldat, ABI’s community engagement manager, admitted that he didn’t personally “eyeball every one.”
“That won’t happen again,” he said.
The photos were taken down by a resident of the West End, who is still in possession of them. Beltline officials declined to comment on whether they would seek the return of the photos.
The next major Beltline event is the ribbon cutting for the Westside Trail on Friday Sept. 29 in Gordon White Park at 4 p.m., followed by a community celebration.