Arts and Community in Baltimore
By: Lauren Saunders and Kellie Mecleary
Issue 13 Fall 2014
Community: the word of the moment. We know it’s a good thing–we get warm and fuzzy when we say it. But, the word is overused, over-deployed, over-claimed, and likely the most commonly used word in grant proposals everywhere. But when challenged with the question, “how do the arts establish community in Baltimore?” the word still has meaning and value for us in this city we call home.
Lauren Saunders and Kellie Mecleary are active members of the Baltimore cultural community. Lauren is the Executive and Programs Assistant for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and a Fellow at Single Carrot Theatre. Kellie is the Interim Artistic Director at Single Carrot Theatre and contributor to Baltimore Rock Opera Society. This article answers the aforementioned question from both macro and micro angles. The implementation of state sponsored arts and entertainment districts are examined, followed by an exploration of several local theater companies and artists who highly value community. This piece considers, “which city planning models exist, and do they work? What kind of work comes out of the existing environment? Why do artists decide to work in Baltimore, and how does the community influence their work?”
“In Baltimore, a city that is so divided, if you can try to get a diverse audience into the same room at the same time and get them to talk to each other about the work, you can actually do something truly revolutionary… To really start off a revolution you have to change something. Change something deep. And I feel like trying to limit divides is something very deep.” —J. Buck Jabaily, Founding Artistic Director of Single Carrot Theatre.
Community Development Through the Arts in Baltimore:
After a year and a half in Baltimore, I, Lauren, left the city to pursue arts administration opportunities in New York. There was a great thrill interning for Theatre Communications Group (TCG) on 8th Avenue. TCG offered unique insight into the regional theatre community –BOOM (or shall I say whoop?) –there it is: “community.” I found myself longing for it, and as I grappled with it on my daily commute, I could not stop thinking of Baltimore. There was something exciting pulling me back.
Many visions of Baltimore focus on blight: blown out row homes, drug rings, corrupted politics creating more problems than solutions…excited yet? All of these challenge every Baltimorean. Yet, tucked into my seat on the train, I could not shake the other idea of Baltimore: a city that struggles for unity, civil rights, safety, and community-orientation. Somehow this city has been “coming back” since the Battle of Baltimore.
I believe neighborhoods are stronger when the arts are present; the creative class plays an important role in community development. Maryland’s actions suggest a similar belief.
In 2002, the state became “among the first states in the country to sponsor Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Districts as a way to stimulate the economy and improve quality of life.”1 Neighborhood revitalization may seem unimportant these days, but at the time, a state-supported arts revitalization effort was like the Spice-Girls to eight year-olds circa 1998.2
This decision sent a clear message to Maryland citizens: art and culture are necessary for economic vitality. And this has proven to be true: the arts pump $388 million annually into Baltimore City’s economy. Living in a nation where arts funding is consistently under scrutiny, Baltimore’s fiscal support for the arts and artists as change agents, not just weirdoes, continues to make the city refreshing and attractive.4
So what is a state-sponsored A&E District? It is “a designation used as a revitalization tool and offering certain legal and financial benefits, given to an area of a city in the hope of drawing artists of various types and/or their customers.”5 Benefits include income tax subtraction modification for qualifying artists who produce and sell work, property tax incentives for renovated, art-purposed spaces, and Admission & Amusement Tax exemption for certified A&E activities.6
These advantages attract developers to build in the three designated A&E Districts in Baltimore City: Station North, Highlandtown, and Bromo Tower. In 2008, after witnessing successful renewal efforts in Station North, Baltimore City revealed a $1 billion 30-year plan for further development in the area. Project plans included a design district for artists and architects, and redevelopment of historic landmarks.
In Station North, this development has not only made the area more attractive to live and work, but has supported self-sustaining artists. Artists’ housing makes the district affordable; in the City Arts Building, developed by Jubilee Baltimore, artists can rent newly constructed apartments for less than $1000/month. And these affordable rent rates cannot be raised for 50 years.
Yet, these incentives do present a threat to the existing community. In the shadow exist Baltimore’s Segregation Ordinances, “the first such law to be aimed at blacks in the United States.”7 As Garret Power wrote:
“Many progressives…agreed that poor blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority…”8
The story has a contemporary message: It cautions us to discount the righteous rhetoric of reform; it reminds us of the racist propensities of democratic rule; and it sets the stage for understanding the development of a covert conspiracy to enforce housing segregation, the vestiges of which persist in Baltimore yet today.9
Such policies can reopen wounds; affordable housing made available to artists is an injustice to the neighborhood’s underserved residents and their increased housing costs.
As Olivia Robinson states in her artwork, Are you there Lord Baltimore?
It’s Me, Olivia Robinson, Citizen Journalist:
“The vast majority of people who recognize themselves as artists in the arts and entertainment district are white and often from privilege. Again, according to the 2010 census, 72% of the general arts district population are black while 82% of the artists are not. During the [town hall] meeting when I hear about the second artists-only affordable housing project, I cringe. It’s not overt racism, but it’s not far from it either.”10
Many developers in Baltimore are often deeply invested in their pockets, but not in the lives of the people they build around – yet, many artists, landlords, community members, and leaders are aware that they cannot ignore Baltimore’s unjust past and potentially fragmented future. Some artists and organizations are working with the community to develop solutions.
In June 2013, Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNEAD) held an Artists and Neighborhood Change Conference, which explored “the interface of cultural vitality and socio-economic equity in low- and moderate-income communities with significant artist populations.”11
The conference invited the community to “directly engage the speakers, voicing their concerns, support, and questions about the future of Station North.”12
At the Akimbo Dance Festival, held in SNEAD, I had the pleasure of watching MUSE 360’s powerful and educational performance, which articulated numerous concerns of the existing community.
The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance is in the midst of developing the Urban Arts Leadership Program; through partnerships with and investments from larger institutions, this program supports arts administrators of color by connecting them to professional development resources.
What does this mean? On every level, people are trying. Brainstorming has begun, artists are voicing their concerns through performance, and arts organizations are developing learning opportunities for the underserved and sustainable connections to influential institutions.
Is this enough? No, but people and artists care. They do not want to whitewash a neighborhood for a fancy movie theatre–it would stifle creativity and disservice the community. The community buzzes with tension, but avoids being another story of gentrification and displacement.
Those complexities, unique challenges, and opportunities in Baltimore stirred within me while waiting for my train stop: a welcoming city for artists and others who want to raise each other up, where developers and companies can fix buildings so people give life to them. In Baltimore, “artist” is interchangeable with “community builder.” You find people who don’t just want to mold a sculpture – they want to shape the world.
In order to fully explore the impact of creative communities in Baltimore, it is necessary to not only consider the efforts of municipal bodies, but also those of individual artists and creative groups. The balance of civic efforts coupled with creative, passionate young adults brings a unique vibrancy to Baltimore, perhaps positioning the city for its own renaissance.
Baltimore Artists, the Communities they Create, and the Communities that Create Them:
“Yes it’s a little rough around the edges, but there’s also great opportunity. It felt like there was a ton of opportunity.” —J. Buck Jabaily, Founding Artistic Director of Single Carrot Theatre.
In April 2005, at age 21, Buck and friends knew they wanted to start a theater company. They just didn’t know where. They sat down and identified four criteria that their future home should offer. Their dream city would be big, with a small town feel; have a decent amount of arts funding; and have an unsaturated, but welcoming arts community. They searched, made phone calls, made visits, and whittled it down to the final four: Austin, Texas; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; and Baltimore, Maryland. Austin wasn’t welcoming, Philadelphia was too established, and Columbus had too many cows. But Baltimore had promise.
At that time, Baltimore had three equity houses—Center Stage, Everyman Theatre, and the (now defunct) Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. All other companies were either firmly ensconced as community theaters, or young, small, and fringe. The still new SNEAD also attracted the company. Says Buck, “we’d never heard of an arts and entertainment district—because it was the first arts and entertainment district – it made us feel like the city… understood that the arts were an important part of redevelopment and revitalization.”13
Funding also seemed to pour into the city: the Creative Baltimore Fund had recently been established. The icing on the cake came when Buck spoke with Nancy Harragan, head of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. Buck recalls their conversation: “She said, ‘I only have two minutes’, and then she took the next 15 minutes to give me a list of 40 names of people I should call and talk to if I was really serious about this, and how great Baltimore was and why I should move here and how well it would work. She basically sold us on it.”14
So, Buck and friends packed up, moved to Baltimore, and formed Single Carrot Theatre. Single Carrot took off, presenting weird plays in tight spaces to eager audiences, establishing itself as Baltimore’s third largest non-profit theatre in just six years.
“I mean, we were creating an alternate universe. The show followed.” —Jared Margulies, Don and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Rockoperology, The Baltimore Rock Opera Society
A few years later, another group of twenty-somethings from Goucher College, sitting around, drinking Natty Bohs asked themselves:
“What would happen if [we] took away all the reservations [we] had when creating something…just said, ‘I’m allowed to do whatever the hell I want!’? What if our budget was 300 million dollars, and at the end of the day it only needs to satisfy us six people. What would [we] do?”15
The answer: write and produce a rock opera. They got to work on what they knew how to do, reaching out to friends and strangers to help. On a shoestring budget, they built epic sets, wrote fist-pumping, face-melting music, and peppered in plenty of jokes. And people came! Their first rock opera, Grundlehammer, sold out. This success yielded the inception of Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), a volunteer-based organization, currently 100 strong, with a loyal following and full audiences.
What gave BROS the gumption to put on such an over-the-top, hand and heart-filled production? Personality, passion, educational background, but also, Baltimore. Says BROS Artistic Director Aran Keating:
“I think that in some cities that wouldn’t have been possible for us to be like…let’s just hang out and do our thing, kind of thing…and I think that Baltimore is just an easy environment to get into the arts generally because of that, because it’s a lot of outlets, a lot of great people making art, and the community’s pretty welcoming.”16
As the BROS grew and achieved success, their mission solidified. They committed to dreaming huge and spending small, making space for amateurs to try new things, and giving anyone who was willing the opportunity to play, fail, and play some more. This inclusivity also extended to the audience; the BROS made rock operas with wide appeal, inviting audiences to be a part of the screaming, shouting, drinking, and laughing.
“But I think that theater can, it changed my life, so it can impact other people’s lives.”
— J. Buck Jabaily
As time passed, the BROS and Single Carrot Theatre (SCT) grew—and so did Buck. He noticed a disparity: while Baltimore residents are 66% African American, about 90% of SCT’s audiences were white. This seemed wrong. Buck wanted to do work that the majority of Baltimore’s citizens would readily attend. He left SCT, and began working at the GBCA in 2010, replacing Nancy Harragan.
Then, he took another cliff-jump, forming the Baltimore Performance Kitchen (BPK). He asserted that all productions would be free admission and have radically changed programming. He, like the BROS, tried to make theater that would appeal to the masses and attract the people that lived in his neighborhoods. From a midsummer outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet, to interactive festival-focused pieces about Edgar Allen Poe, to pieces in pubs, BPK now works to make widely accessible material.
While these artists have had very different goals, different origins, and wildly different work, the ways in which they intersect are telling. Both the Carrots and the BROS produced work because they felt there was space for them to do so among a welcoming, inclusive community. And both are now trying to fulfill big, seemingly impossible dreams.
This is how the BROS work: we begin in chaos, which is brainstorming, bullshitting, dreaming the big idea, the infinite idea…We party on our way to that idea, meaning we enjoy ourselves in the process, we form camaraderie in the process… it’s through that process that you go somewhere that would be impossible, aka a 7 million acre rock opera complex with a palace, and like these dunes you have to cross and like a big giant miles wide moat with 100 thousand alligators in it…so yeah, that’s the 7,000 year mission, is to build a rock palace that will be the sight of…
What was the question? Interview with Aran Keating
In an article written for Howlround entitled, “I Don’t Want to Talk about Innovation: A Talk about Innovation,” Todd London bemoans the national theater industry’s adoption of corporate language and frenzied attempts to ‘innovate, adapt, and become sustainable.’ He longs for “the fervent amateur art theaters of the nineteen-teens,” when the buzz words included, “beauty, truth, gift, spirit, play, communion, amateur (from the Latin for love), love.”`7 Contemporary, corporate language is far from absent, but it pales in comparison to the other words thrown around Baltimore.
The Future of the Arts in Baltimore:
Through examining the history and social and economic implications of Baltimore’s Arts and Entertainment Districts, and through focusing on working artists, one can conclude that Baltimore is an incubator for the arts. Things are changing in part due to the mutually beneficial relationship between the city and its artists.
Baltimore leaders know that artists are valuable to the city’s health; despite all of its development projects, space is reserved for artists to live and work. And artists know they have a responsibility to their community. Is that not what creates community?
Baltimore has a chip on its shoulder, but is somehow eternally optimistic. It is a city of underdogs from which no one expects anything. These low expectations breed a devil-may-care attitude, and thus a very special kind of creative risk-taking. Just because things are trending in one direction and gentrification has been the status quo for developing theaters, does not mean Baltimore has to do it that way.
Will the Baltimore arts scene be a success story? Perhaps a better question is: what will the Baltimore arts scene become? As Baltimore grows and develops, will it retain its uniqueness? Will it crash and burn? We are in a period of possibility We are challenged, humbled and thrilled to be here, right now, in this city—this place we call home.
Initiative, courage, and talent from individuals along with city planning that is inclusive are great steps in fostering a creative city.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Participate in social change, through artistry.
Engage people of varying backgrounds and experiences and encourage active problem solving.
Examine a city’s history and explore ways to build a better future, never ignoring the impact the past has had on the residents of that city.
Consider everyone in the community, making your efforts inclusive and accessible.
About the Authors:
Kellie Mecleary is the Interim Artistic Director for the 2013/2014 season at Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore, MD. She holds a Master’s Degree in Performance Studies from New York University and a BA in English and Theatre from Goucher College. Mecleary has worked as a dramaturg, director, critic, producer, administrator, and stage manager with various organizations including Single Carrot, Center Stage, the BROS (Baltimore Rock Opera Society), Brave New World Repertory Company, Pipeline Theater Company, WOW Café Theater, and Vital Theater. Her writing has been published through Cerise Press and OffOffOnline.com.
Lauren Saunders carries out her dedication to Baltimore’s cultural community in her position as the Executive and Programs Assistant for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA) and as a fellow with Single Carrot Theatre for their 2013-2014 season. Prior to joining GBCA, Lauren worked for the Maryland Humanities Council, and was also the 2012 Artistic and International Programs intern for Theatre Communications Group in New York. She holds a B.A. in Theatre and Women’s Studies from Goucher College.
2 Spice up your life!
3 This regard seems to have been upheld; Maryland increased its arts funding by 15% in its 2014 budget; http://www.mdarts.org/advocacy/budget/
4 Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people in Baltimore, artists or otherwise, are total weirdoes. Baltimore loves weird.
5 “Arts Impact: Examining the Establishment of an Arts District on Baltimore’s West Side” Department of Urban Studies & Planning, University of Maryland, College Park (Fall 2010): 21.
7 Power, Garrett. “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913.” University of Maryland Law School (1983): 2. Web.
8 Ibid. p. 301
9 Ibid. p. 2
10 Robinson, Olivia. Are You there, Lord Baltimore? It’s Me, Olivia Robinson, Citizen Journalist. PDF.
13 Maryland was actually the second state to establish Arts and Entertainment Districts. The first was Rhode Island. However, the Station North Arts and Entertainment District was the first Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore. (http://www.stationnorth.org/about/)
14 Interview with J. Buck Jabaily
15 Interview with Aran Keating, Artistic Director of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society