Democratization of Art at the 2017 Artist-Run Art Fair by Thea Harvey-Brown

Slapping the word “DIY” onto an art project is an immediate (and shallow) way to shed elitism. It reads accessibility – or “democratization of art,” a phrase you will hear often at Baltimore’s annual Artscape festival.

Like the famed motto of Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau, ‘Anyone can cook,’ anyone can make! Anyone can participate! Welcome to the Artist-Run Art Fair, Artscape’s fourth annual showcase of contemporary art, brought to you by an amalgam of local and out-of-state state galleries spanning the space of the Charles Street garage.

Installation by L.E. Doughtie for Terrault Contemporary

The contemporary art world has become so bloated with money (albeit maldistributed) that “DIY” can almost feel like a marketing diversion, like adding “artisanal” to a conglomerate label so shoppers feel like they’re buying local. This trend is a sad reminder that even projects designed to make art outside the commercial gallery system can fall prey to the same vices they ostensibly contest. I like to think that Baltimore has steered clear of this trap –and, happily, and this year’s Artist-Run Art Fair makes the score.

One of my favorite pop-ups was actually an out-of-towner called Little Berlin, actually from Philadelphia. This is their third go at the ARAF, and this year they brought ULINE OFFICIAL Spring/Summer 2017, which uses product images found in Uline Shipping Supply Specialist Catalogs as source material for their ready-made sculptures. I went to the garage multiple times over the weekend, and this pop-up was consistently bustling and energetic, thanks in part to their lively staff but more likely a consequence of their model, which encourages passers to sort through their bins of industrial-ware and make art out of it.

In effect, this design parodies both the industrial market and the art market: ‘utility’ goods are rendered useless, while high art falls to the hands of a four-year-old wanting to play. At a time when so much art is bent on institutional critique, or meta-criticism, Little Berlin’s ULINE offers a new brand, replacing sterile irony with genuine praise.

Or, as their website states, “By introducing viewers to a new aesthetic, providing commonly accessible materials, encouraging audience interaction then exhibiting and documenting the results within the context of an art fair we hope to advocate our fundamental belief that art can be made from anything by anyone.”

Community Bricks by Marian April Glebes at Current’s booth

While Little Berlin wasn’t my absolute favorite stop, it’s the perfect starting point to talk about ARAF and what it accomplishes. The Artist-Run Art Fair is curated by Baltimore collective Open Space, and this year featured eleven galleries, including Clr’d Collective, Current Space, Fjord, Kahlon, Labbodies, Little Berlin, Little Foes-LFHQ, Make Studio, Open Space, Terrault, and Yeah Maybe.

“Labors of love (especially those that are artist-led) are vital to the city yet end up being hard to upkeep,” says Dr. H. Corona, a participating artist who co-directs LabBodies. “It’s especially [difficult] with no sustainable local funding infrastructure in place to support small artist-centered arts organizations as they begin to grow, travel, take big creative leaps or just simply try to continue to exist.” ARAF provides a platform for emerging artists to take the lead, with plenty of space and free rein to challenge traditional presentations of art.

Challenging “traditional presentations” can take many forms, and each featured gallery offered its own interpretation. Make Studio showcased work made by visual artists with disabilities, and the range of paintings were vibrant, comical, serious, and inspiring.

They also contributed their piece “Promise Land” by encouraging visitors to freely contribute. “Promise Land” stood loudly in the corner of the garage, pronouncing bright colors and handwritten messages, for and by a community of Artscape visitors. They offered tissue paper, pens, and paint, and no instruction beyond that. It was hard to walk by without adding to the land.

Yeah Maybe, a collective from Minneapolis, displayed a collection of paintings, hanging tubes made of photographs, and a few wall-works that bridged sculpture and painting. The three paintings, made primarily of oil and acrylic, look like they’ve been digitally-rendered. It seems as though the subjects, two ladders and a snowman, entered the CGI vortex and wound up on canvas. Isn’t the analog world cool?

Works in the Yeah Maybe booth

Each exhibit this year brought its own craft and its own marvel, but also, perhaps more important, its own contribution to the cause of making art accessible.

The group that did the best job uniting form and function was CLR’D, a collective from Baltimore run by four young women. “CLR’D Collective strives to bring people of color’s experience to the forefront,” says Amani Lewis, co-founder of the collective. “The diversity CLR’D collective wants to see in the art scene in Baltimore is the diversity we want to be.”

Murjoni Merriweather created stunning ceramic sculptures of men and women with African American hairstyles. Some don jewelry also made from the collective, and most of the heads tilt their chins to meet your gaze. Their back wall featured two digital paintings made by Amani, each bright and glaring, with beautiful portraits eclipsing most of the frame.

In neon text that resembles a restaurant window sign, the words “DON’T SHOOT!!” lie beneath the neck. The spectacle of skill, from the largeness of these ceramic faces (physically and metaphorically) to the tiny details of the jewelry, speaks loudly on its own, but feels especially calling in the context of their mission.

“We not only want to make art around our communities’ voices and put them in shows for people to talk about, but we also want our communities to be participants in the creation of these works. We want them to feel like they are a part of something larger, something that will be a direct change/experience that they will never forget,” says Amani.

As a whole, this year’s Artist-Run Art Fair, housed in the Charles Street Garage, communicates Amani’s message: “We want our communities to know that who they are and what they have to say is important.”

Works by various artists at Make Studio’s booth


 

The Artist Run Art Fair was part of the 2017 Artscape Festival and organized by Baltimore Collective Open Space.