The Betsy Hotel has been closed ever since the coronavirus shut down tourism in South Florida. A gradual reopening is expected on July 1, but live jazz music in the lobby and the ever-present buzz of arts and cultural programming won’t be back in full swing.
That doesn’t mean that the Betsy’s “PACE model” of philanthropy, arts, culture, and education is on hold. Rather than hosting salons in the hotel, the Betsy moved them to a virtual space — creating online salons where artists and authors present live from their homes to yours.
At the end of March, just weeks after everything came to a halt, the Betsy began its virtual artists’ series titled, “Zen and the Art of Architecture, Music, Poetry, and Photography,” each Monday at 7 p.m. via Zoom. The weekly “community gatherings” kicked off with architect Chad Oppenheim broadcasting live on March 30.
“We’re now living in a world where on the other side of the screen or the telephone are people yearning for cultural and artistic interaction,” says Jonathan Plutzik, chairman and principal owner of the Betsy. “This virtual connection is profoundly important.”
The next incarnation of the “Zen” series started June 1 with a focus on contemporary writers creating in a multicultural world. “Zen and the Art of Writing in America” will continue each Monday through July 13. Then comes “Zen and the Art of Writing and Making,” which will close out the series on July 20, July 27 and August 3.
Plutzik, who co-owns the hotel with wife Lesley Goldwasser, says it is vital for the Betsy to be a space for comfort and healing through the arts. It’s a message he remembers a restaurateur friend telling him back in 2001, about places like restaurants and hotels playing an important role after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“They became places of healing in a communal space, he told me. I carry that with me today,” Plutzik says.
The arts are a family affair for Plutzik. His sister, Deborah Plutzik-Briggs, is a professional opera singer-turned-PhD-in-arts-education-turned-arts-development-expert. She serves as the hotel’s vice president of arts and as director of the Betsy Community Fund, which programs its arts and culture.
Their father is the late poet and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Hyam Plutzik.
The Betsy has a Writer’s Room that is a legacy to Plutzik — and that features his desk as well as inspirational wall hangings in the form of his, “The Importance of Poetry.” Writers selected for the hotel’s weeklong residencies in the creative studio space are meant to draw inspiration from the surroundings.
“Many Miami pre-war hotels had ‘writing rooms’ for travelers and guests,” Plutzik-Briggs says.
The room opened in 2012, and the pandemic marks the first time the room closed and the residency was put on hold.
While the Ocean Drive hotel hosts everything from music to its own curated exhibition spaces, writing is the “most natural commitment to the Betsy,” Plutzik says. “We know about the immortality of creating things and of words and of poetry in particular.”
In May, the Betsy offered “Zen and the Art of Poetry By Women.” This month, “Zen and the Art of Writing in America” launched with Pablo Cartaya, who is the cofounder and former director of the Escribe Aqui/Write Here program at the Betsy. He also established its bilingual, LGBTQ and Young Adult Writers initiatives.
“When Pablo started as the first author on June 1, it confirmed to me that what we are doing is something important, giving artists the chance to talk about their work in the context of what is happening now in the world, and how, in spite of it all, they still find their Zen,” Plutzik-Briggs says.
She remembers getting Cartaya initially involved at the Betsy thanks to a Knight Foundation challenge grant designed to help further the writers' program.
“I wanted to hire a writer from the community to work with me,” she says. “With that grant, I hired Pablo Cartaya. Having a partner like him made all the difference in the world. We created together Escribe Aqui/Write Here, and then we developed the residency program with Escribe Aqui for regional writers.”
Like everything the Betsy does with its programming, it was one of their community-built partnerships that became the link for the Zen series to get off the ground so quickly in March. Plutzik-Briggs called up John Stuart, executive director at FIU Miami Beach Urban Studios, to help the Betsy create the series.
“Jonathan was on board with the idea from the beginning,” she says.
Both brother and sister express great pride in the Betsy’s role as a beacon for art partnerships and a space that gives groups a home in the greater Miami area.
This commitment to the arts is visible down to the details. Everything in each room is curated, from the art on the walls to the book selection. Goldwasser has put together a formidable art collection with museum-quality exhibition space throughout the property.
“We don’t want to have decorator books in our rooms, and we don’t want to have decorator art on our walls,” Plutzik says. “We focus only on great photography, and we think of ourselves as having nine galleries, six of which are in rotation and three of which are permanent.”
Goldwasser curates many of the exhibits, often inviting guest curators to mount shows. Because of their dedication to the fine art of photography, they have partnerships with some of the greatest galleries in the world.
Just before COVID-19 temporarily closed the hotel’s doors, the hotel was exhibiting “The Art of Andy Sweet.” Sweet was the young photographer who chronicled 1970s Miami Beach and was murdered in 1982.
“The exhibit moved people,” Plutzik says.
The Betsy also acquired an exclusive collection of Muhammad Ali photographs for an exhibit overseen by Goldwasser and curated by Andrew Kaufman. The exhibit offers a rare glimpse into the champ’s time spent in Miami Beach.
“There are some very famous shots in that exhibit and a set of 20 smaller ones all taken in Miami Beach,” Plutzik says.
Sitting outside looking at an empty Ocean Drive make Plutzik appreciate his connection to Miami even more, he says. He recalls when he and Goldwasser first laid eyes on the hotel. When they purchased the Betsy in a bankruptcy auction in 2005, “it was closed, the door was locked, and it had a skeleton staff of three,” says Plutzik. “But it wasn’t in bad shape.”
The couple did some renovations and opened it in 2006 as a luxury boutique hotel.
“I can’t say that the moment we purchased it that we knew exactly what direction we would take, but we knew it would be to create a hotel that we thought South Beach needed,” he says. “We ran it for a while, then we shut it and renovated it completely. It took us a while to figure out what we wanted to do.”
The Betsy Hotel closed in 2007 and reopened in 2009 after a multimillion-dollar restoration.
“Perhaps except for now, spring of 2009 was probably the worst time in economic history to open a luxury hotel,” he says.
All these years later, the Betsy has developed more than 200 partnerships with its PACE model and the philanthropy of the Plutzik Goldwasser Family Foundation, which was created by Plutzik and Goldwasser. Plutzik-Briggs serves as the foundation’s executive director.
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Not only has the Zen series helped the Betsy stay connected with the community, but it has served as a way to help keep arts brands alive, too.
“This is a very important time for us and all presenting organizations to have a chance to reassess what we do, to think about what you do well even better, or maybe to say, ‘You know that one thing we do? We’re going to leave that to someone else,’” Plutzik-Briggs says. “I am hoping to take with me these quiet moments and try to figure out how to do what I do and what we do better for the next phase.”
“Zen and the Art of Writing In America” continues each Monday. The July 13 closing of that series will feature the screening of the documentary, “Hyam Plutzik: American Poet,” in partnership with the Miami Jewish Film Festival. “Zen and the Art of Writing and Making” will begin July 20 with entrepreneur Gidi Grinstein and continue through August 3. To RSVP for the free salons or to see the list of authors and guests, go to thebetsyhotel.com/calendar.
– Michelle F. Solomon, ArtburstMiami.com