An old friend arrived on the Brandeis campus on Friday: Chris Bedford, the former director of the Rose Art Museum, and current Wagner Wallace Director of the Baltimore Art Museum. Bedford came back to Brandeis to talk about the upcoming Venice Biennale, an international art show at which Bedford will be co-curating an exhibit by contemporary painter Mark Bradford with the Rose’s curator at large, Katy Siegel.

Bedford spent most of the talk discussing Bradford and his work. Bradford was born and raised in Los Angeles.

He grew up working as a hairdresser in his mother’s salon, which was, according to Bedford, a matriarchal job. This inspired him to enter the painting world, which, at the time was more patriarchal.

Most of his paintings draw inspiration from working in the hair salon and growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. He refers to his work as “social abstraction” because it focuses on a mix of social issues, especially those related to the Civil Rights Movement.

His work also emphasizes the history of abstract art. Bradford is also the founder of a Los Angeles-based program called Art and Practice, which provides care to help children become young adults through contemporary art. According to Bedford, Bradford always wants to have “one foot in the studio [and] one foot in the social world as an activist.”

Bradford participated in Prospect 1 in New Orleans in 2008. Prospect 1 is a contemporary art event that began as an outlet to bring art into New Orleans after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

According to Bedford, Prospect 1 was a way “of bringing the art world [...] to a largely black community that had been devastated, neglected, variously televised and photographed broadly across the country but not helped adequately by the state or federal government.” Bradford arrived intending not to present his artwork,but to get involved in helping the community. He ended up auctioning a painting and donating the proceeds from the auction to found a non-profit organization called L9.

L9 is run by Keith Calhoun and Sandra McCormick, two Katrina survivors who have used their photography to document incarcerated men and prisoners in Louisiana.

Bedford explained that in the late 1990s to early 2000s, a tradition emerged of performing social actions within institutional gallery spaces, such as serving soup in a gallery, in order to “[try and] model social propositions on a much smaller scale.”

Bedford said that he initially was skeptical of how this practice could apply to social change, but he believes that we have now moved beyond that tradition and now sees several artists participating in social action that is unrelated to the world of art. “It’s quite literally ... social service enabled by the power of the art world,” Bedford said.

When Bradford is in Venice this Spring, he will work with two prisons on the island of Venice that are hidden from the public eye. According to Bedford, around 60 percent of the residents of the prisons are undocumented migrants, particularly Syrian refugees.

Bradford has started working with Rio Terra, an organization that serves to remedy the system of incarcerating these migrants. Rio Terra provides services to the prisons.

In the men’s prison, they assist inmates in making bags and purses out of recycled posters and banners from the Biennale.

They will sell the products they have made — the inmates will receive some of the profit while the rest will go back to the program “to train subsequent generations.”

In the women’s prison, the inmates will sell produce to restaurants and hotels around Venice, using the profit to invest in infrastructure for the program.

“The one major commitment of Mark’s ... is that this is not supposed to be a burst of sensational activity ...,” said Bedford. “This is supposed to be a sustainable form of action that will exist way, way beyond Mark’s presence in Venice.”