It’s Not a New Wave, It’s Just You and Me
All cities are cities of neighborhoods, once you know them, but Baltimore’s has a particular street-by-street, block by-block sense of place that takes some figuring out. Baltimore City proper (and the large donut of Baltimore County that encircles it) is not a layout I recognized from other cities. Neighborhoods are sometimes juxtaposed sharply against the next, sometimes hard to distinguish between. Like Baltimore as a whole, the art scene can seem opaque at first but it is solid – both stable and flexible. Interesting work is being made and people come out to support each other’s endeavors consistently and in good numbers. There is a mix of large institutions (The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), The Walters Art Museum, and Maryland Institute College of Art, among others), mid-sized non-profit art spaces (Creative Alliance, Maryland Art Place, School 33 Art Center, The Contemporary) and artist-run spaces. The latter are in constant flux, but are the beating heart of what is happening here. The most stable projects have a combination of personal vision and flexibility that can be difficult to sustain. The turnover of spaces is in itself is a constant. If you look and cannot find what you’re looking for, you will be supported in endeavoring to fill in that gap. Almost to a fault, sweat equity and in-kind donations are the norm, and as soon as you pitch in, there will be people ready to help out on your project.
Of particular note among the artist-run spaces is stalwart Current Space and its raw mix of DIY shows, artist studios, and music performances. Open Space lost its original warehouse location to a fire, adapted and recently reopened a smaller gallery. It organizes the annual Prints and Multiples Fair and began an alternative art fair at Artscape (Baltimore’s art festival) last summer. Guest Spot (in particular its program of pairing Baltimore artists with New York artists) has been a welcome addition to the city in the last few years. I should also acknowledge the now-defunct gallery Nudashank, which closed its run of shows a couple of years ago but looms large with offspring like Springsteen and Terrault Contemporary echoing their professionalism and adventurous programming. Several large warehouse spaces like The CopyCat Building, H&H Building, Area 405, the Compound and newcomer Platform Art Center provide a mix of live/work spaces, studios, galleries and workshops that have organically evolved over the years.
In the last five to six years there have been a growing number of grants and prizes available to artists and artist groups that helps to bolster the amount of support available. Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA – my employer) offers the Sondheim Award, The Transformative Art Prize, the Creative Baltimore Fund, Free Fall and many commissions with Artscape. Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance offers the Baker Artist Awards and the Rubys, and Maryland State Art Council has its Individual Artist Awards. One of the developments I’m most excited about is the re-establishment of The Contemporary which had closed its doors in 2011 and reopened last year with a renewed vision, a new director (Deana Haggag) and new staff (Ginevra Shay and Lu Zhang). This year will be the first of their regranting program, Grit Fund (via the Warhol Foundation), and the first of several nomadic projects. They recently concluded a series of “CoHost Lectures” with various Baltimore art spaces that included talks by Nick Cave, Coco Fusco, Andrew WK, Wayne White and others. Coupled with the series of contemporary artists shown in the recently reopened contemporary wing of the BMA, this speaker series has helped fix what seemed like a lull in projects that brought a critical mass of strong contemporary artists to speak and show in Baltimore.
A steady diet of this type of programming challenges local artists to rethink assumptions and raise the level of their work, but Baltimore’s art scene still lacks some necessary things. There are almost no free studio residency programs or programs for artists to buy homes or studios. This leaves the arts community reliant on first wave gentrification for less expensive rentals. Amid the excitement for more new art and artists in the area, I hope this concern is not forgotten. Another long-time problem has been the absence of a real art buying public. Mention this to any gallerist or artist and you will be in for a long, long discussion with various theories about why this is. I will spare you this and just say that there are only a few true commercial spaces and their impact on what is being produced here is minimal as best. For now, though, art buying does exist as a market of makers and enthusiasts, and high quality work is available for very reasonable prices. I have been able to buy or trade with many artists I admire, and enjoy having their work in my home – the upside of work being undervalued.
Art writing and reviews have definitely been a weak point since I’ve been here, but Bmore Art has shown a lot of growth and has included many more voices recently, to its betterment. There have also been some new online forums. Post-Office Arts Journal and About:Content further the discussion with in-depth and well researched articles and reviews. Acres, now in it’s third year, is an annual roundup as seen by recent MICA graduates, as well as a well designed physical object. It can also be interesting to read back through some now-defunct publications – Radar and Locus Magazine in particular provided coverage of events and spaces that could be long forgotten in the rush of promoting the next new thing.
In my time in Baltimore, I’ve been focused on visual arts, but there is a strong music and performing arts scene, both of which are able to shine at festivals like Artscape, scapescape, Fields Festival, Transmodern, Lantern Parade, High Zero and others. The city’s strong music scene include bands like Beach House, Future Islands and Wye Oak which have become popular internationally. They came out of a scene heavily indebted to the Wham City collective of artists – from Dan Deacon and Ed Schrader’s Music Beat to Lower Dens. Wham City’s maximalist aesthetics seemed to dominate the DIY galleries when I arrived here in 2008, only recently turning and branching out in a variety of different directions. Force, the Feminist Art Project and LabBodies also have been working with performance art and social practice within underrepresented communities, creating great projects locally and nationally.
Overall, Baltimore has shown growth over the last several years – in the quality of the artists choosing to come or stay to make their work and in the kinds of spaces that spring up and evolve around them. Yet a true diversity of voices has still been difficult to achieve. Could there be a more radical way of re-thinking where we go from here, both in Baltimore and for artistic communities in general? What could happen if there were more coordination between larger arts organizations, with a focus on connecting similar cities to each other and with the larger art capitals? Can the conversation in arts communities support artists in reassessing what it means to be an artist one’s whole life? By holding to traditional benchmarks, are artists shortchanging themselves? I think a lot about affordable studio and living space, and about what artists and arts agencies and galleries offer, both to each other and to their cities. Flavor-of-the-month grantmaking terminology (“creative placemaking” etc.) tries to get at the complexity of how art works in a particular place. But making Baltimore, or any city, into a more rigorous creative community, requires talking more deeply and more honestly about where there is stagnation and how to build momentum. Building new models for the arts requires some more holistic, big-picture thinking, as well as working on practicalities efficiently enough that the labor doesn’t feel like just one more thing, but like a new thing, with stability and flexibility, breadth and depth.