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What do European artists, Baltimore’s transit system, and a $200,000 Creative Placemaking grant have in common? From a cursory look, not much.

‘Creative Placemaking’ sounds like a euphemism for gentrification, another scheme where artists are given nominal funding to improve underutilized urban areas, so that real estate developers can dramatically increase the value of the same properties, raise rents, and chase the artists out. A $200,000 arts grant sounds like a good thing for Baltimore. But who will it benefit or affect? And what exactly IS Creative Placemaking?

According to the local news blog Bmore Media in the meandering article, “Cities turn to creative placemaking to revitalize neighborhoods” by Canadian author Sheena Lyonais, the $200,000 grant and subsequent projects “could put the city’s art scene quite literally on the map.” What map are we talking about, exactly? Art clichés are not helpful.

Digging deeper, a press release from BOPA details some of the disparate elements. Baltimore has been awarded funding from ArtPlace America, a grant making group made up of “thirteen leading national and regional foundations and six of the nation’s largest banks,” according to their website. Although they sponsor projects across the country, Baltimore’s particular project aims to combine original art and city transit, with the goal to transform vacant urban areas into creative and economic hubs. On a side note, European artists will be coming to Baltimore in January to do these projects, which are intended for Baltimore’s three Arts and Entertainment Districts, including areas around Penn Station, the Howard Street light rail line, and bus stops in Highlandtown. If this seems disjointed and confusing, don’t worry. It is.

According to BOPA Executive Director Bill Gilmore, “We really don’t know what we are getting into, with this project. This is a process driven program. At this point, we don’t yet know the European artists we will be working with, what their approaches will be, or what the outcomes will be. You will just have to keep tuning in.” Although an experimental and intuitive approach can be an effective part of an artist’s practice, it’s rare for an administrative leader to embrace such a high level of uncertainty for a civic transport project, but Gilmore explains it’s all a part of the process.

To clarify, this venture started with a completely separate grant and inquiry through the Goethe Institut in Washington, DC about six months earlier. Wilfried Epstein, the director, contacted Gilmore about doing a ‘foreign exchange’ in Baltimore and Gilmore thought that the project, which came with approximately 70,000 Euros, would be a great opportunity to incorporate all three of Baltimore’s Arts and Entertainment districts into one undertaking. From the beginning, the endeavor would involve European artists and combine their ideas with Baltimore’s public transit system. After a number of meetings, members of Baltimore’s cultural districts were given a grant “to get to know Europe better” says Gilmore, and to make them more aware of transit strategies in Europe, which are much more successful in their utilization and accessibility.

A Baltimore ‘study tour’ made up of Gilmore, Ben Stone of Station North, Kari Snyder of Highlandtown A&E, Krista Green representing the Bromo District, Mike Molla, Vice President of Operations at MICA, and Valerie Lacour of the Baltimore City Transportation Dept went to three European cities for two days each. They chose Marseilles, Berlin, and Helsinki because these were cities none had visited before. The purpose of the trip was to better understand European cities’ public transportation systems, and to visualize ideas that might work for Baltimore.

After their study trip, more meetings ensued and, at this point funding has been set aside to provide three fellowships for three different European artists to come to Baltimore for six weeks between January and March, 2014. The artists will be housed at MICA, will conduct research on the three separate arts and entertainment centers and their unique transit challenges, and come up with proposals for projects to improve them. The artists – who may be visual artists, designers, architects, urban planners, public artists, or sculptors – will also be provided with a number of different opportunities to interact with the public, and do community outreach with Baltimore-based artists and other stakeholders in each district. At this point, the plans are still loose and evolving.

We know that one artist will work with Ben Stone on the Penn Station Plaza area, one will be working on specific intersections and transit shelters near the Creative Alliance, and the third will be exploring the light rail on the Howard Street corridor, in the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District. At the end of the six-week fellowship, the artists will present the findings of their research and a plan or prototype to implement positive and art-based changes in each area.

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All in all, the funding and project are an opportunity to gain “European expertise for a fresh look at the transit systems we have in place and what we might be able to change and redesign,” says Gilmore. “While they are here, the Europeans will integrate into the arts community of each district, and network the assets available in each district. After the design process, depending on what they come up with, there will be money for the engagement of local artists.”

The Artplace America ‘Placemaking’ Grant augments the original Goethe funding with $200,000, so that the European artists’ plans can be made into reality. One possibility will be that local artists will build, design, and implement these plans. Will this be another Borofsky debacle? Gilmore says no. If an opportunity arises for local artists to participate, BOPA will host a call for proposals. “We don’t handpick,” says Gilmore. “And we always want to see what local artists come up with.”

Additional opportunities for local artists will include public outreach, different types of events and partnering projects, and a balloon effect from the original exchange. For example, there’s an exhibit from Hamburg, Germany, which will travel to Baltimore and Washington and a French HipHop Dance Troupe performance at Creative Alliance which occurred in May, 2013. Neither project is specifically related to transit, but point to creative fusion and growing opportunities for cross-cultural pollination from the original funding.

Although the expectations are wide open for the upcoming project, and the results won’t be seen for a year or two, Baltimore’s transit centers, arts and entertainment districts, and art community stand to benefit in some way – both from the Goethe funding for European ‘exchange artists’ and the Artplace America money to invest in building projects here.

Will this project be successful in the goal of ‘creative placemaking’? If so, it continues to prove that artists are a driving force behind neighborhood revitalization and economic growth in urban centers. In this case, local artists should be given ample opportunities, (including possible input from a ‘foreign exhange’ artist) to participate in this process, to help to solve our problems, transit related and other, and should place their input at the center of our city’s long and short terms strategies for the future. Hopefully these two grants from Goethe and ArtPlace America will do just that, but as Gilmore said, “We are open to this process and the results remain to be seen.”

* Author Cara Ober is a Baltimore-based artist and writer. She is the founder and editor of Bmoreart.