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Can Art Change Baltimore? Maybe a Little at a Time

By DREW GROSSMAN
Special to Capital News Service=

BALTIMORE - North Avenue is changing. For decades, at noon or at midnight, the beaten-up blocks in Baltimore between Charles Street and Mount Royal Terrace felt empty. Now people wait for a table at Joe Squared. An Irish pub has opened between a theater and gallery spaces. The Maryland Institute College of Art is polishing up the facade of its studio center, and students are walking there from Bolton Hill.

The street is hardly bustling. But little by little, a push to draw art and artists to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which includes this stretch of North Avenue, is bringing some people in.

Art has changed other cities: Austin, Texas, cultivated an image as the Live Music Capital of the World, in the 1980s. Music changed the face of Seattle in the Nineties. SoHo attracted artists into Lower Manhattan.

* * *

Ten years after the state designated Station North an arts and entertainment district, city leaders say it's too soon to know. And even the biggest boosters advise that art can't fix all Baltimore's ills.

But in a city whose residents have struggled for years to find a way to stabilize neighborhoods, some city leaders hope art can stoke the economy and help improve Baltimore life.

Artists "help brand an area and anchor it and give it stability," said Joe McNeely, the executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership.

In the last few years:

- Gallery/performance spaces have opened on Charles Street and North Avenue.

- The non-profit Jubilee Baltimore opened the City Arts building, with 69 apartments -- most reserved for artists -- in what had been a vacant building across from Greenmount Cemetery.

- A public design school, for middle-school students through high school, opened last fall.

- Artists have moved into rowhouses in Greenmount West and have joined the community association.

- The Maryland Institute College of Art has continued its expansion by renovating old buildings along North Avenue and near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

- Art competitions -- including the Baker Artist Awards and the Janet and Walter Sondheim, Prize?were begun in an effort to recognize the region's contemporary artists.

Also, local artists have drawn national attention. Dan Deacon, who developed a following for his electronic music here, scored "Twixt," Francis Ford Coppola's new film. And Baltimore bands, playing in industrial spaces like the H & H Building, have been reviewed in national magazines.

In 2008, Rolling Stone named Baltimore as the best music scene in the country.

In Station North, new businesses have opened along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Charles Street, where suburbanites join city-dwellers for movies at the Charles Theater.

A few blocks farther east, artists drawn by cheap housing are moving into a neighborhood that for decades has been forgotten. And closer to Patterson Park, the Creative Alliance involves East Baltimore residents and children as it offers performances and exhibitions to the public.

What does all this add up to? Small changes, but positive ones said Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob Institute.

"North Avenue is showing signs of life that it hasn't had in the past 10 years," said Clinch, who also serves as a consultant for MICA.

Economic development is measured in jobs, people and foot traffic, Clinch said. And these are on the rise in Station North.

As of January 2011 there were 1,495 arts-related businesses in Baltimore that employed 7,877 people, according to Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the arts and arts education. This is an addition of more than 1,300 arts-related jobs since Americans for the Arts' last study in 2005.

* * *

But some artists say Baltimore is not the best place for creative people. Gary Kachadourian, a Baker Prize winner, says most artists cannot support themselves here because there's no market for contemporary art.

"Baltimore is not a place where people buy art," Kachadourian said. "It's a city that has a lot of artists, but it doesn't really have an art audience."

"It's kind of an anomaly really in that it has a major art school pumping out lots of artists," he said. "It has a good art scene for making art. So people are interested in being here to make art. But it doesn't really sell."

Fred Lazarus IV, the president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, believes art and community development are linked. But he warns against expecting art to change everything.

"Too often the arts try to sell themselves as engines of economic development," said Lazarus. "There is a big correlation between cities that have energy and are moving forward and have strong arts communities, but it's hard to know which comes first and how they fit together."

"The arts activity in Station North is supporting a lot of restaurants and the restaurants hire a lot of people, including a lot of unemployed artists," Lazarus said. "But it's really the spin-off things that create the jobs more than the arts themselves," he said.

* * *

Station North is not pretty. There is a gas station obstructing the flow of arts and entertainment down Charles North. And boarded-up storefronts with fading posters and announcements are just as common in Station North as an art gallery, vintage clothing store or trendy coffee shop.

Many of the buildings in the area are in disrepair and need to be almost completely rehabbed?an expensive job. There are also speculators who bought property in and around Station North 10 years ago and are sitting on their investments. As the owners wait for the market to improve, the neighborhood is left with vacant lots.

But many city residents say they are encouraged by small improvements.

Artists are "the advance party for revitalization," said Anne Clewell, who sits on the board of the Greenmount West community association.

Artists tend to look for cheap rents. They need space for their work. They like to be able to walk or bicycle to school and studios. They like to live communally.

In other words, artists are a good fit for a city with lots of empty spaces.

* * *

McNeely said artists can define a place?and art and culture are what make a place exciting to people. That excitement, McNeely said, can attract income and investment. Greenmount West, which has struggled with vacant buildings and crime, is welcoming artists -- some of whom are rehabbing old rowhouses.

And artists create and exhibit art wherever they happen to be -- including in the hallways of apartment buildings such as City Arts on Greenmount Avenue or the Copy Cat, an old factory on Guilford Avenue.

"The artists here are organizing their own events and galleries," said Doreen Bolger, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

She sees a do-it-yourself mindset among artists. "They just go ahead and do what they think they want to do," said Bolger, who is a frequent visitor to exhibitions in quirky downtown spaces.

"They are not waiting for us to do something for them, so they're not waiting for a museum to have a show for them," Bolger said. "They're organizing their own spaces and their own shows."

Through social media like Facebook, Twitter and the discussion forum Elfwire, they are organizing and promoting concerts and gallery openings at the H&H Building and the Wind-up Space.

Bolger keeps a running inventory of art around town on her blog, charmcitycurrent.com. In one of her posts she highlights the work of In (Parentheses), an artist's collective of photographers and digital media specialist, who are exploring the idea of "what the image has the potential to be, as an object, an idea, and as a tool for communication."

Their work, though not widely advertised, brings people to underused spaces. And it has created new communities.

* * *

"This is a generation that is very linked together," Bolger said. "All of these artists are very much aware and in communication with each other in a kind of underground way."

"The artists in this city have created a social life for themselves," Bolger said. "There are opening parties, there are closing parties, there are band parties, there are house parties, there are garden parties and there are cookouts. The whole group as a community is together a lot."

Bolger says the traditional art institutions must forge links to the new generation, and she has launched free events that showcase young artists.

The Baker Artist Awards and the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, recognize and promote contemporary artists in Baltimore.

Also, in an effort to support the work of living artists and acquire art that speaks to the current times, the BMA is reinstalling its contemporary art wing. It will open in the fall of 2012.

But this art movement is not contained in a single building, gallery or exhibit. It is everywhere -- in restaurants and shops, on the sides of buildings and in informal gatherings across the city.

* * *

At the Maryland Institute College of Art, Lazarus has expanded the school's campus from Mount Royal Avenue across North Avenue and has opened a building in the East Baltimore redevelopment project near Hopkins.

"If we did not take a positive engagement in the community and the communities around us, it was going to significantly and strategically limit the students that we could attract, the faculty that we could attract and the programs we could develop," Lazarus said.

In past decades, location was a problem for MICA, Lazarus said.

"When we surveyed students as to why they didn't come to this college, Baltimore was always one or two on their list as reasons they didn't come," Lazarus said. But applicants now view the city differently. "It's now on the list of reasons they are coming."

The college has added a focus on social design, which uses design as a strategy to improve social problems, to much of their course work. The school has three new graduate programs that are community-based, Lazarus said. And last year the school opened an Office of Community Engagement.

MICA's student population grew from 800 to 2,000 since the 1980s.

But, Lazarus said, art cannot save the city. Art might be able to save a neighborhood, he said, and it can be part of the city's revitalization. But art cannot do it alone.

Can art change Baltimore?

The National Endowment for the Arts believes that it can. And in the summer of 2011 they showed their faith in Baltimore by awarding Station North a $150,000 grant. Station North was selected as one of 51 national Our Town grants.

"At the NEA, we know that artists are place-makers," said NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman in a 2010 NEA press release. "When you bring arts organizations and arts workers into a neighborhood, the ethos of that place changes: the arts are a force of social cohesion, civic engagement and economic revitalization."

The Station North Arts and Entertainment District is trying to convince more people to stop to see what the art movement really looks like. On Final Fridays, a monthly event held on the last Friday of each month, the public is invited to enjoy the sights, sounds and foods of Station North.

"The area is a little rough, but it is improving," said Kaliope Parthemos, the deputy mayor for economic development. "Great cities have great arts."

Copyright © University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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