AIF Blog

Featured Exhibit: “Guns in The Hands of Artists”

May 15, 2015

("SMAC" by Club S+S, photo courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery)

Guns In The Hands of Artists is a community-based social activist artistic project that involves taking guns off the streets and transforming them into works of art that comment on the issue of guns and gun violence in American society. This exhibit is organized and curated by Jonathan Ferrara and will be displayed at the Aspen Meadows campus during the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival.

The exhibition was first conceived in 1996 by artist Brian Borrello. Over the past 18 years, gun violence has continued to be a major issue that affects the very fabric of American culture. Guns permeate the American landscape. From Sandy Hook to Central City, deadly violence is a daily occurrence in our society. From the kid on the street corner killed by a stray bullet to the mass murders at Columbine, guns and gun violence are wreaking havoc on America. With the recent mass shootings of the past years and the still-high murder rate in New Orleans, artist/ gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara, the producer of the original Guns in The Hands of Artists project, was compelled to revisit the exhibition and reopen the dialogue that was started many years ago. As an artist, activist and social entrepreneur, Ferrara asked himself ‘What can I do to address this issue that pervades our society? Organizing this exhibition is my way of doing something. It’s my goal to use art and the creative process to facilitate new, frank dialogue about gun violence and guns in our society."

In early 2013, Ferrara started a unique and historic collaboration between the New Orleans Police Department, the City Council and the Mayor’s office to secure 186 handguns and long-barreled guns, taken off the streets by the NOPD’s gun buyback program. Ferrara then invited (and challenged) over thirty nationally recognized artists from various geographies and backgrounds to transform the decommissioned guns into works of art. The historic collaboration brought the community together to address an issue that has plagued the city for generations.


Another critical component of the project was education. Ferrara broadened the collaboration to involve New Orleans’ Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), an organization that provides re-entry support to help youth who had been involved with the juvenile justice system to build healthy lives, steer clear of the justice system, and remain safe. The gallery and YEP collaborated on two projects: a speaker/panel series and a youth-focused studio series. The speaker/panel series featured four different panels, held in the gallery with the backdrop of the art made from guns, addressing different topics and featured different viewpoints presented by a cross-section of local experts, youth and community stakeholders. Panels included Executive Directors from New Orleans’ youth serving organizations, Victims of gun violence, members of the District Attorney’s office and culminated with a panel of youths who had personal experience with gun violence. To reach a national audience, the panels were both live-streamed online and live-tweeted by participants and those physically in the audience. The youth-focused studio series had artists in the exhibition give youth engaged in YEP’s programming the opportunity to take part in small-group tours of the exhibition to  hear first-hand both about the artistic process and learn more about potential jobs within the art world.


(Photo: "Onegin" by Nicholas Varney; courtesy of Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.)


This exhibition spotlights the creative forces at work in the city along with the other national artists. It showcases the creative partnerships that arise from the public and private sectors working together; Art as economy, social activism and entrepreneurism. The exhibition will begin its national three year tour traveling to The Aspen Institute for The Aspen Ideas Festival and The Aspen Action Forum. After Aspen, the exhibition will continue to tour the country to museums, art centers and the like, furthering the conversation about guns in our society with art as the catalyst for dialogue.


But even on a national tour, the exhibit will not be seen by enough people. So in order  to reach more people, Jonathan is launching the exhibit as a book. It will pair photographs of the artwork with a collection of essays on guns and gun violence by nationally known thought leaders: a moderate, sensible conversation on guns and gun violence in our society. Jonathan is proud to announce that Walter Isaacson is penning the opening to the book. As an exhibition, Guns in the Hands of Artists approached this tension in a thoughtful manner infrequently evidenced in today's rancorous political debate. As a book, Guns in the Hands of Artists will not only bring this art home to those unable to visit the exhibition, but provide essays that expound upon the themes presented in the exhibit.


Click here to find out more about the forthcoming book and to pre-order advanced copies. View a gallery of photos from the exhibit, here.


This article originally appeared on the Aspen Action Forum Blog.