A Conversation with Baltimore Rock Opera Society & the Need for Artist Spaces by Michael B. Tager

Artist spaces are essential to artistic growth. Because artists are rarely financially successful from the jump, they need time—and importantly, space—in which to create and perfect their craft. Paying for both living and workspace can be untenable to many and so, often when all else fails, artists make space where they can, in converted warehouses where corners may be cut. Often, living space and workspace are blended, creating environments not necessarily suited for such. Baltimore is no different from anywhere else and within the city, we have many makeshift artist spaces where communities sprout in dedication to their work.

Of course, there are risks and tradeoffs for living in this manner. For every space like the Copy Cat, a long-running converted space where artists live, create and perform, there are trade-offs. Sometimes, these concessions are minor, such as a space being temporary or requiring labor to fix up before it’s usable. Sometimes, however, the trade-off is tragic.

In December, 2016, a fire broke out in the Oakland arts communitythe Ghost Ship—killing 36 people. This tragedy highlighted two important issues: the difficulty that artists face in obtaining space (art doesn’t necessarily pay enough to afford it) and the unfortunate, sometimes dangerous lengths artists go to in obtaining that space. What happened with Ghost Ship is a result of semi-illegal activities events such as concerts and fundraisers combined with buildings containing inhabitants that are not legally zoned for it. Of course, that these activities are illegal doesn’t make  them morally suspect. It’s a cloudy issue, the line between morality and legality.  

What is clear is that these makeshift artist spaces such as the Ghost Ship are an attempt to fill a need without support beyond that which artist communities provide each other. And if there is a need, these DIY communities are going to fix it themselves. And in Baltimore, they do and have.

Shortly after the news of the fire broke, my social media filled with articles and think pieces about the Baltimore Bell Foundry and its subsequent shut down by Baltimore City. Besides the Bell Foundry, other spaces were closed, such as Studio 14, and there were even (unfounded) rumors of the imminent shuttering of the Copy Cat, an artist space for decades. Likely, other artist spaces (such as Copy Cat and the H&H)  have scaled down their events to avoid notice for the time being, despite what this may mean to their raison d’etre and pocketbook.

I didn’t know what the Bell Foundry was, even though I continually ran into members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS) whenever I was near the building (working and studying at the University of Baltimore at the time, I was there a lot). I learned that the Bell Foundry was the home of the Rock Opera, a community space where they had workshops, rehearsals and general hanging-out and that they shared with live-in artists in the floors above. And that it had been shut down, seemingly in response of the Oakland fire.

The outpouring of protest, from members of the artist community, got my attention.

Even recently, in April of this year, protest about the use of artist spaces hit the Bell Foundry when graffiti was power-sprayed onto the facade saying, Shame 100, aimed at the policies that evicted artists so that the building and sit can go on sale for upwards of one million dollars. While the BROS have cleaned most of the graffiti off, some of the members sympathize with the sentiment.

With the recent proposed cuts to the National Endowments for the Arts, it’s more important than ever to talk about artist supports. Art is more than a luxury, it’s a way for people to connect and express ideas and emotions that are important and universal, and often difficult for individuals to even acknowledge. There’s a history of artists banding together to turn warehouses and other old, abandoned places into arts communities. With the Bell Foundry, the BROS had a space, until suddenly they didn’t. I asked a few of the BROS to tell me about their experiences with the Bell Foundry, and with artist spaces in general. Thankfully, they told me.

MBT: Before we dive into it, what’s your role with the BROS?

ARAN: I’m a founding member and BROS artistic director.

SHANNON: I saw the original Gründlehämmer and immediately fell in love with the DIY aspect of the show. I assumed the title of Marketing Director in 2014 [and] in 2016 I transitioned to Managing Director.

TYLER: I’m a bass player that has been part of the Baltimore music scene for about 10 years. I’ve been part of BROS for the last 8, since the first production of Grundlehammer.

JOE: I moved to Baltimore from Buffalo, New York in the summer of 2010. I found BROS in the spring of 2011 as the Double Feature was in production.

The BROS in the Bell Foundry, Photo by Shannon Light Hadley

And how did the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS) get started?

SHANNON: BROS was dreamed up around 2007 by a bunch of Goucher friends hanging out in a basement. The original group was an off-collection of artists and musicians who had seen films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise and figured writing and producing a rock opera would be fun to do. Two years later Gründlehämmer made its debut at the 2640 Space in Charles Village and somehow we never stopped making shows.

ARAN: After creating the script and music for Gründlehämmer in 2008, the same group of founding members started work on bringing it to life on stage. They immediately realized how far out of their depths they were and solicited help from community members. Putting on this first BROS show planted the seeds of the community that continues to thrive today. We have put on 8 original full-length epic rock and roll musicals and a dozen or so shorter original works. We’re a hyperactive community production company, a really big group of skilled people who just want to create the best new thing and enjoy contributing to a work of art that is larger than what any small group of artists could accomplish.

JOE: It became apparent [to me] that there were enough enthusiastic volunteers and public support to keep producing crazy, over-the-top DIY rock operas so we kept raising the bar. In the spring of 2011 we renovated the Autograph Playhouse on 25th St and performed the Double Feature. We had a tremendous amount of energy coming out of the Double Feature.

A year later we were staging Valhella: The Ragnarokoperetta and looking for a base of operations that wasn’t the rented theater or volunteers’ backyards and basements. By the fall of 2012 we were in talks with the owner of the Bell Foundry and we signed a lease that December.  With full control of the first floor of the building we knocked down all of the existing walls and shaped the space to fit our needs. By the end of February 2013 we were kicking off the production of Murdercastle—at times renovating the Bell Foundry and rehearsing the new show at the same time.

Let’s come back to the Bell Foundry in a moment. What’s the BROS’ history with performance/artist spaces? Where have you worked and performed? And why did you stop working in those spaces?

JOE: The first performance space that BROS was the 2640 Space in Charles Village. We’ve returned for a number of events but haven’t utilized it as a work space since 2009.

ARAN: After our first production, we sought a space where BROS could put on a production that would run longer than three days. We toured an abandoned theater on 25th Street (formerly a movie house) that had just been purchased by Billie Taylor and renamed The Autograph Playhouse. BROS struck a deal with her to get the theater fixed up in exchange for use of performance space. We got in WAY over our heads with the space. However, we managed to follow through.

JOE: Our volunteers shoveled rat feces out of every crevice of the building, built the two-tier stage, cleaned all the seating and attempted to fix electrical and plumbing issues in exchange for reign of the building.

ARAN: A few productive years of shows happened but in 2013, the Autograph Playhouse attracted the attention of the city fire marshals (this was just a couple of weeks before Murdercastle opened). Despite the fact that we’d put in hundreds of hours of volunteer labor and thousands of dollars in materials and rental money, the owner was unable to secure the theater’s Use and Occupancy permits. We managed to broker a deal with the city to keep the space open through the end of our run but we told the owner we wouldn’t come back until the permits were secured.

I’m still very proud of the work we put into the building and miss performing there. It is depressing to see so much wasted effort go into a space that could have been a home for BROS and for many many other performing groups.

TYLER: Following the Autograph, we’ve played at the Lithuanian Hall, the Zion Lutheran Church, the old Everyman Playhouse on Charles Street, and the Chesapeake Arts Center. Each of these places served our purposes, but have ultimately fallen short for our long-term goals, both because they lack certain features we need to properly achieve our vision (venue capacity, sound systems, etc.), and because they aren’t places where we have control.

SHANNNON: BROS performed our following six shows (Gründlehammer 2014, The Electric Pharaoh, the Rock Opera 6-Pack, CHRONOSHRED, Amphion and Brides of Tortuga) in six different venues. It’s difficult to have a full theatrical run (three to four weekends of shows) in a venue that’s not a theater—there’s always something else going on: a gala, another show, a wedding, etc. It’s been really cool to activate unique spaces in Baltimore that may have never had a rock show in them before, but it’s also challenging.

TYLER: It was clear that in order for BROS to grow we were going to need a permanent performance space.

Photo by John Ellis

And was that the thought around the Bell Foundry. How did that all happen?

JOE: The Bell Foundry has been our base of operations since December 2012 and is obviously the place we have the most stake in. The terms of our original lease allowed us a few months of free rent in exchange for the work it would take to make the space usable. This required a complete overhaul of the first floor.

SHANNON: This was the first time we had a real space to build, rehearse and meet that wasn’t the Autograph Playhouse. With the Bell Foundry we were finally able to move all of the random build locations from all over town (one member’s backyard, another’s basement, garage, alley, etc.) into one space. It became the central hub for all BROS activity.

ARAN: David Krasner wanted to bring the entire building together under one lease so they could improve the basement and create three independent floors with different arts uses. We moved in and created the space that BROS is still in to this day. It is the rock opera headquarters with a wood shop, rehearsal stage, costume shop, prop-building area, common room, offices, kitchen and storage. It is where everything happens for BROS except for our performances.

JOE: When we found the Bell Foundry, [we] worked out a deal where part of the first floor renovation would include building and apartment space. I would pay monthly rent and a portion of the utilities bill to help offset the cost of rent for the entire floor. When it came time to design the new layout of the space and begin construction, Garrett Bladow and I took the lead. Garrett had a lot of carpentry experience and I had a personal motivation to learn quickly since we were building the place that would be my home.

I lived at HQ for two and a half years and moved out in July, 2015 feeling that the space I occupied within the building could be better used by our Costume Department. I continue to serve as the caretaker of the space and now work professionally as a carpenter.

What happened in December of 2016 between the city and the Bell Foundry?

ARAN: The city targeted the Bell Foundry in the wake of the Ghost Ship Tragedy because they knew people were living in a space not zoned for residence. Numerous officials from housing and fire came with the intention of shutting down the space and declaring it vacant. A vacant building is one that has no permitted use and can’t be occupied.

The tenants who were living there were most immediately affected since they were evicted from their homes with no notice. BROS was left in limbo without the ability to use our space but not being kicked out. Eventually there was a recognition from the housing department that they did not want to remove BROS from the building since our use was compliant.

JOE: The Bell Foundry shutdown was very clearly an effort by the city to save face and feign concern about safety in the wake of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. It is true that our building had/has a number of safety issues surrounding but it is abundantly obvious that the city never wanted to make the place safer—only to shut it down.

Until the shutdown, we shared the building with numerous other artists, bands, and groups. The second floor housed a print shop and a bunch of private studios for all kinds of visual and musical artists. Some artists lived in the space while others used it solely as a studio.

The basement had four practice rooms that were rented to dozens of bands and for a while was a venue for shows. The back lot was turned into a skatepark and was often used for public and private barbeque events. All of these activities, while culturally vibrant and important, were not very legal due to zoning laws and the ad hoc nature of the building’s interior.

TYLER: The shutdown of the Bell Foundry was an incredibly unfortunate situation that didn’t really have an alternative way of going down. Once the complaint was received, the city had very little legal wiggle room. That said, the way that it was carried out was atrocious. The people living there were treated like criminals, and there’s no excuse for that. The people living on the second floor shouldn’t have been living there, but that doesn’t mean they should have been treated the way they were.

We will continue to operate out of the first floor until our lease is up on December 1st, and then the Bell Foundry as we know it will be dead. It is for sale for a significant amount of money and occupies a key piece of real estate. I don’t think the arts will have a place there in 2018, if the building itself even survives.

JOE: Our lockout lasted for three months as we worked with city officials to get our portion of the space to meet various codes. I toured the building with the Housing Authority, several city inspectors, the owners, and Aran, offering insight when asked and trying to keep up with the numerous issues pointed out. They hated the second floor and basement, telling the owners that they could never be rented out again. All of the electrical work had to be removed and the spaces swept clean or they would face fines. This work fell to some of the now displaced tenants.

ARAN: The following months involved a marathon of bureaucratic wrangling, constant arguments with the building owners, untangling more than 6 years of systems [installed] to help the floors function harmoniously, utilities changeovers, cleanups, a major rat infestation, one major theft and two attempted break-ins, minor repairs, and a few contractors. We eventually acquired a new Use and Occupancy permit for the space (the first floor ONLY) in mid-February and went back to using the building. The 2nd floor where the tenants lived is totally shut off.

JOE: In the time that we were out of the building there was no electricity or gas to keep the building warm and parts of our furnace froze and cracked. Without the constant presence of people we developed a rat infestation. [I feared] that boarded-up doors would attract break-ins a and a couple of local petty thieves cleaned us out of $2,000 worth of power tools.There has been at least one attempted break-in since we regained full access to the space and we now have to replace the back door of the building. Some of the kids in the neighborhood still climb the fence and break bottles.

SHANNON: It’s been hard. There’s a lot of pain and anger in the arts community surrounding this event. I don’t know if I would actually call it resolved—we managed to get back into our space—but since the Bell went on the market there’s still a kind of death clock counting down until our lease is up.

Photo by DebraLenik

Was this the first time something like this happened?

JOE: In March 2013, the police caught wind of a day-long fundraising event hosted by the other tenants of the building and shut it down. I explained to them that there was no relationship between the activities of the first floor and the shows in the basement. They demanded that I take them to where the show was taking place. They intimidated everyone but made no arrests. This happened at a time when other arts spaces were being shut down (Coward Shoe, Broom Factory). The result was that no more shows (once happening almost three times a week) would be held for almost a year. Basement shows were an important source of income for the tenants of the building since they helped to pay for appliances and repairs on the second floor.

We were very afraid that the attention brought to the building by that incident would cause everyone’s eviction. During the incident I had to talk down three police officers who listed ways in which the the building violated zoning laws: the existence of the skate park, shows in the basement, and personal residences. They knew, or had a hunch, that people were living in the building but weren’t there to shut it down for that reason. The city has known for a long time what kinds of activities take place in the building but never made an effort to pressure the owners to improve the conditions. If they cared about safety, the building would have been shuttered long ago and we would have started having the conversation about safe artist housing in 2013.

Sounds like these issues are very much in the forefront for you.

ARAN: I wish I could say the event is in the past for us but constant unfortunate reminders such as the past week’s vandalism keep bringing things back up.

SHANNON: After seven hours of power washing we have managed to remove almost all of the tag that was on the unpainted brick. I’m currently working on soliciting some paint donations to cover the remaining tag.

From an individual standpoint I want to acknowledge that I completely understand the message behind the graffiti and how our actions in taking it down can be perceived. I don’t want us to be a part of the bigger problem facing artist-run spaces, but it is extremely hard to speak for a huge organization when not all of our opinions align. I want is to reach out to more members in the artistic community outside of BROS to figure out real solutions and to have conversations with the people that were strongly against us taking the tag down.

ARAN: I’ve heard that same outrage expressed by so many people in the past few months. We all hunt for solutions to our entrenched system of real estate development that has no real interest in communities that don’t represent big money. As we’re working to build permanence in this city, I’ve been trying to attack the problem for BROS at every angle. Maybe the artist [who vandalized] didn’t realize that we had spent months working to regain access to the space just for the privilege of paying rent to those landlords he was calling out, but the vandalism definitely added insult to injury for us.

Photo by Debra Lenik

Have these events affected the way the BROS view permanent artist space?

SHANNON: This event was an unfortunate reminder that artists need to be in control of their space, but also that communities and artists need space to get to know each other. Artist spaces should be celebrated jewels in the community. There were so many community-focused ideas around the Bell Foundry that could have been amazing if presented in different circumstances. There’s a skatepark in the backyard, we wanted to build community garden. We had a composter. Joe built trash can corrals to prevent cans from blowing over. I saw amazing performances in the basement over the years. But it wasn’t safe. Nothing was safe. The backyard is full of holes and rusted metal and the basement was intense to say the least.

JOE: We are still looking for a home after the Bell Foundry. There is little chance that we will be ready to own a building by December 1st, but we have to have a BROS HQ somewhere. We will most likely have to move into another temporary space but this time with a lot of experience.

TYLER: These events are just part of a series of troubles BROS has experienced in securing and maintaining work space. The closest thing we’ve had to permanent work space was the Bell Foundry, and that turned out to be an illusion. We can no longer trust that a space will be permanent unless we are in control, because time and again we have seen that when we are not in control, the spaces in which we work and perform are not managed properly, which puts our existence in jeopardy.

JOE: Our relationship with the Autograph Playhouse proved early on that relying on the good faith of building owners was not a good path. Almost every story you hear about artist space in Baltimore ends with the artists being kicked out. We knew from the beginning that our time at the Bell Foundry was limited. Our lease would come to an end and the building would be sold, demolished, and made into a parking garage.

ARAN: The dream of a permanent space where we can put down roots and build bigger better works of art, do more outreach in the community and entertain the hell out of a diverse group of Baltimoreans has always been the company’s dream. Baltimore deserves to have more great arts institutions that express the weird and varied culture that surrounds us. Baltimore deserves to have arts groups who are in control of the means to produce their work, their livelihood and their destiny in the city. We are dedicated to gaining an ownership stake in our future home so we can ensure that BROS can make a permanent contribution to the city’s future. We want a space that is as secure and strong as the community we have built.

MBT: In a broader sense, what is the importance of artist space?

SHANNON: I think the city and the communities should absolutely be supportive in those that are willing to take something no one else wants and make it fun and beautiful and usable. Artist spaces not only provide a hub for creativity, they also provide a safe space for different kinds of people. The upstairs residents spoke to this.

JOE: Artists need spaces where they can safely and freely create their work. The needs of every artist, musician, theater company, etc. will be different, so it is important that flexible spaces are available. Warehouses with absent landlords are attractive because they are cheap and easily customizable. Artists weigh the value of their workspace against potential safety risks. Often times an unsafe warehouse is the best option because it is the only option. When artists have room to create in an environment that suits their needs, we see better art. BROS could not create the shows it now does if we were still working [from] basements and backyards.

TYLER: If artists in this city don’t have space to work, exhibit, and perform, then Baltimore as we know it is dead. That this city has a vibrant, weird, and diverse artistic scene is one of the primary reasons I moved here. In order for that scene to survive, artists need resources because otherwise the personality of this city will evaporate, and with it an entire population of creatives.

SHANNON: I think we need to also become active members of the neighborhood, or at least do a better job at letting the community know what we’re all about so they can be proud that an inclusive artists space is in their neighborhood. Artists spaces should be safe and accessible, but we should also take it upon ourselves to open the doors and welcome our neighbors. I think there’s absolutely a clubhouse mentality that happens with a lot of spaces.

Photo by E.T. Wolfe

So what’s happening now? How are the BROS working to offset this?

TYLER: The future existence of BROS rests on the edge of a knife. We have done great things in this city, and we want to continue to do more, but that won’t happen unless we secure a permanent home where we can grow and evolve. If that doesn’t happen, we will die, and the few years when Baltimore had its own Rock Opera Society will be an interesting historical footnote. I would much prefer that BROS becomes a pillar of Baltimore’s artistic community.

JOE: Realizing that we would never have a secure home until we owned one ourselves, we launched an emergency fundraiser seeking $75,000 to put towards the purchase of a building.

TYLER: That is why we’ve started to secure our own space which we control, because when we operate in a space it is beneficial for both ourselves, the building, and the surrounding community, but we can no longer trust our future to a location unless we are personally invested.

JOE: We’re in the middle of that campaign and hope to have the money raised by the end our lease with the Bell Foundry (December 1st). With the building up for sale we need to find a new home before then.

SHANNON: For the past 6-8 months we have been beating the street, checking out spaces and having meetings with potential partners, organizations and investors. It’s been incredibly difficult…it seems like it was easier to find spaces 5 years ago. Now buildings are being bought up and sat on, which is incredibly frustrating. We want a space now, and yet so many [buildings] will remain rotting while developers and owners wait to sell when the neighborhood develops.

ARAN: SO many meetings! I’m talking about the details of the space that we want to create with everybody who will listen. I’ve gotten very positive responses from the community development nonprofits where we hope to end up (CBP, Downtown Partnership) and we are honing our vision with pro-bono help from the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) a great non-profit that provides design and (in our case) development expertise to local community groups. I spent the first couple of months adding every possible off-the-wall space to a list that is now being whittled down to only the spaces where we can really see ourselves being successful.

SHANNON: It’s been difficult to solidify business partners before we know exactly what space /neighborhood we’re working in.

ARAN: We aren’t quite at a decision point yet but we’re getting closer and the vision is becoming clearer with NDC’s help. We’re a strong and durable community of artists that have been producing large scale works of collaborative art for 8 years and we’re ready to expand the vision to year-round entertainment, more community learning and more original works put on stage that are unlike anything being produced. I think the city will get very excited about this space once it starts coming to life!

Its extremely exciting that very soon Baltimore is going to have a completely kickass rock palace that will stand for the next 7,000 years.

To  help make the BROS dream a reality, consider donating here.