A Baltimore Year in Art & Politics: Gains, Losses, and Takeaways in 2017 by Cara Ober

I’m not going to sugar coat. This year has been a political dumpster fire, a string of depressing social setbacks, and a rallying cry for protest. It’s been a bumpy ride and we’ve burned the midnight oil, said and done things we’d like to forget, and now it’s time for reckoning.

Sure, you have an emotional hangover. You’re exhausted to your core. You’re angry, frustrated, and tired of feeling helpless. Rather than sipping proverbial brunch mimosas to dull the pain, as you’ve done repeatedly during 2017, the new year is an opportunity to wake the fuck up, caffeinate, and make plans to kick some ass. It’s time to stop wallowing, stop being shocked by the ‘new normal,’ and get to work. Nobody is going to do it for us.

Despite the distractions and obstacles, 2017 has not been a bad year for art, but there are always gains and losses to ponder, unanswered questions to consider. The close of the year is an opportunity to reflect, assess, and to make resolutions for the future. And I’m not talking about the same flakey resolutions you make every year – to eat clean, go to yoga, limit screen time, or whatever that magic balm is for you. I want to look at 2018 from a more communal perspective, to focus upon the issues that matter most to us, and to make concrete plans to act and agitate and create with strategy.

Whether it’s holding our political and cultural leaders’ feet to the fire or building new artistic and social structures, the creative community in Baltimore offers a wealth of radical and visionary ideas because – let’s face it – we have nothing to lose except ourselves. We are a city of innovative, lean, and nimble survivors and this is no accident. We view collaboration as necessity and see opportunities everywhere. We’re not afraid to make mistakes, even giant ones, because this city is a laboratory for trying out new ideas, for figuring out what works on a trial-and-error basis.

Unlike our national leadership in Washington which seems to view history as optional fiction, we know better: when we choose to look at the past and learn from it, especially our missteps, we make better decisions for the future. For this purpose, I offer you a list of large and small events of the past year, to consider what they mean for our collective future.

On the Upside:

MORE DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS

One positive trend in 2017 was a significant number of exhibits by women, LGBTQI, and people of color at museums, commercial and college galleries, and artist-run spaces. I’m not saying that we can’t appreciate good art made by cis-gendered white dudes, just that they still dominate the art world and it’s essential to hear from different perspectives in order to understand this crazy ass world we all share. Also – why would you not want to benefit from the wealth of creativity available to you?

Looking ahead nationally, the trend seems to be continuing. The next Whitney Biennial will be curated by two women, Rujeko Hockley (one of the 2016 Sondheim jurors who selected FORCE as the winner) and Jane Panetta. “Jane and Ru are two of the most compelling and engaged curatorial voices of our moment, with broad and sensitive instincts for artistic and cultural relevance,” the Whitney’s deputy director and chief curator, Scott Rothkopf, said in a statement. “They are both passionate champions of emerging artists, while their more scholarly projects have shown keen insights about making history feel alive in the present.”

In Baltimore, this trend seems to be on the rise – at museums, galleries, and alt spaces. Is it possible the arts will become a place for radical connections across this city’s historic and purposeful racial and socioeconomic divide? I can see no reason why not.

#METOO

Women are radicalized. Women are owning their anger and expressing it. We are tired being treated like objects, like children, like lesser beings by the men who take their power for granted. The contribution of Tarana Burke, a longtime counselor to victims of sexual harassment and assault, who coined the phrase “me too” should be praised, as well as the brave women who have taken personal and professional risks over the past few months in publicly revealing their stories of abuse. And if you haven’t yet, read Coco Fusco’s searing indictment of higher education as a place for sexual misconduct.

Just before the national #metoo movement launched after public revelations of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein and other “creative monstrous men,” Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman published “Abuse and Accountability in the Arts Scene: A Reckoning” for the Baltimore Citypaper. The article hit a local nerve and the two writers received attention and accolades from across the country, praising them for their in-depth and sensitive research, as well as offering concrete solutions to this ongoing problem.

How to keep this movement from being just a hashtag? Stay focused on the large structural and systemic changes that need to happen slowly and methodically over time. #Metoo is a rallying cry for empowerment, for insistence upon changes in our current power structure. This is not going to be easy. We still live in a country where women are not considered to be people – legally, sexually, intellectually, economically, or socially.

INDEPENDENT MEDIA

The Baltimore Beat is so far exceeding expectations for local alt-weekly news and its collaboration with The Real News Network, as well as beautiful color printing, has made the loss of the Baltimore City Paper less painful. We have high hopes for the Beat and it’s ability to stir shit up, report on the stories mainstream news ignores, and to hold civic leaders accountable. Baltimore Beat, we are counting on you to tell us what’s happening in city hall, to celebrate the work of creative makers in this city, and to tell the stories no one else is printing, especially in keeping Baltimore Detective Sean Suitor’s name and case alive.

We’re also excited about independent art media initiatives that seem to be going strong – The Rise of Charm City, Local Color Podcast, Beyond the Studio: A PD Podcast for Visual Artists, Out of the Blocks (despite its attachment to our local, adorably dysfunctional NPR station), and Inertia Studio Visits are all fantastic additions to our cultural media landscape. If we want to tell the real story of Baltimore, we need more independent voices with professional ethics and a willingness to do the work.

LIGHT CITY PAYS ARTISTS FOR REALZ

This shouldn’t be news, but it is, so let’s just celebrate it. Light City is continuing to pay artists reasonable amounts of money to accomplish ambitious, site-specific projects. We’re especially excited about their Neighborhood Lights projects hosted all over the city, which allow visitors to experience some of the best work in the festival without traveling to the Inner Harbor.

Although the results of Light City’s projects have been varied over the past two years, the insistence on choosing qualified national-caliber jurors and paying artists a significant amount required to accomplish higher levels of production than ever before is a game-changer. I look forward to seeing this trend continue with other organizations in this city that fund serious artist projects.

THE PEALE

The Peale Museum is back with Nancy Proctor at the helm, committed to collaborative exhibitions in the country’s oldest museum. According to their website, “Today, the Peale is relaunching as a production house for authentic stories of Baltimore’s people and places, and a laboratory for innovation in the cultural sector worldwide.”

The building, also a former city hall and a first school for black children in Baltimore, has its own rich history that mirrors our city. Two of The Peale’s recent exhibits, Birdland and The Anthropocene and H.T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum are an encouraging sign. Both follow the collaborative and immersive model brought there by The Contemporary in 2016, with a site-specific museum-wide installation by Abigail DeVeille which incorporated theater, installation, performance, and artifacts exhumed from the site itself. It’s going to be exciting to see more collaborative exhibits in this space and we can count on Proctor to bring an impeccable level of quality to this institution.

BALTIMORE CLAYWORKS!

First it was announced that the beloved 37 year old institution offering clay facilities, national residencies, and galleries was closing due to insurmountable fiscal problems, an unpaid debt of over a million dollars. In July, board president Kathy Holt told the Baltimore Sun: “We understand the impact this will have on the larger arts community. It is exceedingly painful to those that Clayworks has served. We are all grief-stricken with the result.”

They planned to sell both of their buildings and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but then… they got a fresh, new board of trustees and decided to stay open. There are still challenges and the organization has had to lay off a few of their employees. However, Clayworks is now re-opened and a significant portion of the funding needed has been raised. The good news is they appear to be on track for the future. Click here to make an end of year donation if you think this type of materials focused facility is important for artists here in Baltimore.

State Funding for Artist-Run Spaces

This is still pretty hush, so we’re not going to say too much about this but… With support from Amy Bonitz Palmer and BARCO, several of Baltimore’s artist-run spaces have received significant funding from the State of Maryland to do much needed renovations and to buy their spaces, rather than renting. This is exactly what artists need–good counsel and appropriate funds–in order to continue to provide quality cultural programming and services to the city without sacrificing safety.

I never thought I’d say it but – Thank you, Governor Hogan. It’s too bad our Mayor refuses to follow your lead.

Alternative and Artist-Run Spaces !

New art spaces opened this year like Cardinal Space, curated by Alexander Jarman and Ariel Cowen. Recent exhibits featured Robert Andrade, Neil Feather, and an inaugural group show of Baltimore-based makers. Also we’re excited about multi-use gallery spaces like the Metro Gallery,  The Baltimore Eagle, Hotel Indigo’s Gallery, Tectonic Space, and Motor House (full disclosure: our offices are on the second floor), which now boasts regular programming including lectures, dance parties, and exhibits, as well as a new restaurant and bar.

We are proud of existing art spaces hitting milestones, especially those who are successfully navigating alternative models like St. Charles Projects, which mounts ambitious shows in a space shared with an architecture firm and Guest Spot at the Reinstitute and Project 1628, both located in live-work spaces. We are thrilled that Current space is going strong after buying their building on Howard Street and the one next door.

Newly reborn art spaces on the horizon: Resort, run by Alex Ebstein and Seth Adelsberger (formerly of Nudashank) is set to open January 20 with work by Ginevra Shay and Roxana Azar. And Springsteen has relocated from the Bromo Arts District over to Highlandtown, opening in spring of 2018.

Question: What can individuals do to support the existence of these spaces? How can we as a community support the culture producers who support our work and do the heavy lifting and get tired? My suggestion is simple: buy art in 2018 from local galleries. Even if you make a pledge right now to save up and buy just one piece, if we each did this there would be a seismic shift in the local arts economy. This is important and it is doable. Let’s all become local patrons for the arts in 2018 and then share our acquisitions to encourage others! #ibuyart #buymoreart #artpatron

RIP:

The Loss of a Great Artist and Friend

Nagrom Morgan Monceaux, artist, leather daddy, friend and community builder. After visiting his studio and learning more about his quintessential American life, it was heartbreaking to lose this passionate artist and advocate for other artists. We miss you.

You can visit Morgan through his artwork at New Door Creative, a gallery located near Penn Station in Baltimore.

Baltimore City Paper is no more.

After Baltimore Sun bought the alt-weekly, we knew it was just a matter of time, especially as its page count shrank on a regular basis. Why did this need to happen? Rumors abound, but the saddest guess is the most obvious: The City Paper was closed after its employees voted to unionize, which, if true, is disgusting on a basic American values level. Another possible reason for closure – it has been said that the CP provided advertising competition for The Sun, despite the fact that they were owned by the same company.

Either way, we mourn a team of committed journalists who did their jobs ethically and professionally, but there is hope (as mentioned above) that The Baltimore Beat will step up and fill these (scuffed up) shoes. Looking ahead – with such dismal leadership, is there hope for The Sun?

Downers:The Contemporary Suspends Operations

When measuring our losses in 2017, none is greater than The Contemporary, our excellent nomadic non-collecting museum. It’s board has said that it is officially not closing, just re-imagining, and that there’s a chance it will return in another form. Maybe TC is like a Phoenix, with the ability to be constantly reborn from its own ashes?? Time will tell, and I would love for TC to continue to exist, but I’m not holding my breath on this in 2018.

Mayor Pugh’s Safe Art Space Task Force

I had low expectations for Mayor Pugh’s Baltimore Safe Art Space Task Force, but I want to sincerely thank all those who showed up for these meetings and attempted to make our city a safer place for artists. To date: a year of meetings has yielded zero legislation, zero city dollars, and zero improvements for artists.

Our mayor doesn’t care to understand basic math: art and culture attracts funding and investment to our city, and therefore our city should invest in art, artists, and safe spaces.

Although individual members of the task force have been able to help artists get some of the funding they need to keep their spaces open, the task force itself has repeated the mayor’s official mantra, that private funds are needed but not from the city, and that they’re interested in developing new spaces (in defunct schools?) over helping those already in existence.

This is not acceptable in a city that benefits from the labor of artists and claims itself to be a cultural destination. Does Baltimore value artists and art spaces? Do we create economic and cultural value here? If so, our city needs to value us by investing in the arts in a way that actually helps those who make it with actual city dollars.

Simple changes suggested:

1. Fiscal penalties levied on those who hold vacant buildings, especially in arts districts, to motivate them to sell or renovate.

2. City funding for building purchase and renovation of homes for artists and makers, with a requirement that buyers live or work in the space for five years.

The BMA at Lexington Market?

What happened to the BMA’s Lexington Market Satellite Exhibition Space designed to place “BMA Collections in dialogue with contemporary art”? First it was slated to open in September, 2017, then last we saw, it was pushed back to November.

Although I never got an official press release about the satellite gallery, last summer the museum published an employment listing for a multi-year position for the curator of the gallery. The job is no longer listed on the museum’s website, so should we assume this ambitious project to bring art directly to the people at Faidley’s Seafood has been scrapped? If this is the case, can we expect other experimental and democratic museum programs to be floated without substance and then dumped?

 

Takeaways:

Is it possible the 2017 dumpster fire will yield something good? Can we emerge from our media coma and codependent relationship with the president stronger, smarter, and more effective citizen artists? Is it possible to take the hard lessons of 2017 and spin them into an explosion of awesomeness in 2018 and beyond? As an individual, what can you do to maximize collective impact?

I. Showing up is essential. Small steps lead to larger movements. Whether it’s supporting other artists at an exhibition opening, attending cultural programming like lectures, concerts, and performances, or making a damn sign and protesting just causes, our power grows and shrinks based on the way we vote with our most valuable resource: time. Let’s make it count and realize how valuable our collective presence is.

II. Action. No one is going to build a better Baltimore for us. Your cultural leaders, organizers, representatives, and curators are tired. Baltimore has always been, and continues to be, a DIY city. This is amazing because it means we are free to pursue fantastic, idealistic, and otherwise unrealistic ideas, but it’s punishing because there’s no safety net for success, as the loss of The Contemporary has shown us.

III. Join Forces. Is there a cultural institution you admire and want to support? Even if you’re not rich, is there a way to offer your time, energy, expertise, or support to an organization that would benefit from it? How can you get involved in making a cultural organization better? I propose purposeful action, connection, organizing, and communication in 2018.

IV. Become a patron to the arts. Buy at least one piece of art this year from an art gallery in Baltimore. It doesn’t matter what you buy or how much you spend. Save a tiny amount each paycheck and start scouting out your favorite artists. Stop buying other stuff you don’t need. According to the Americans for the Arts newest national report, dollars spent on the arts in a local community circulate and multiply exponentially, tending to stay local rather investing in other places.

V. Resource building and sharing is the way forward. How can artists be more generous with one another? How can we be smarter about finding capital, building a creative lifestyle, and making strategic decisions? How could a Baltimore with more available resources, collaborative creative communities, and networks of support and education become a sustainable place for artists to live and work? What are the products, artifacts, activities, and tools of such a place?? It’s time to look beyond our local elected officials who have proven they have no clue of the value artists actually provide to this city. It’s time to determine what our needs are and figure out how to advocate successfully for them.

I realize that it’s dangerous to think that 2018 will be any different than 2017, just because we flip a page in our calendar. However, this is a turning point. Overall, 2017 has been a shitty and demoralizing year, but art and artists continue to be a high point for all of us. There is endless potential in this city, but the Baltimore cliché of endless potential and few concrete results is more tired than me.

It’s time to come together, redefine our goals, and stop fighting over small differences. It’s time to build on our strengths and move forward collectively. I look forward to seeing you in 2018!