In Baltimore, artists' community is the real work of art

Art critic Blake Gopnik writes that Baltimore's eclectic arts community has taken culture into its own hands with artists flocking to abandoned factories to procure their newest pieces.
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, July 11, 2010

A communal living room on a body-shop roof. Hairy guys in dresses at a downtown bar. Warehouse after warehouse full of artists' lofts, with enough room in one to park a vintage truck.

Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in D.C. anymore.

We're in Baltimore. Over the past five years or so, the art scene there has taken off. The flight of industry has left factories just begging to be turned into studios and living spaces, at prices the most junior artist can afford. There's a fine source for that emerging talent: The Maryland Institute College of Art, one of the country's leading schools, has boosted its enrollment by 50 percent in 10 years. And Baltimore has established institutions with a commitment to the cutting edge, both local and international: the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Contemporary Museum, as well as Maryland Art Place.

The city's famous philanthropic tradition has kicked in, too. The finalists for the $25,000 Sondheim Artscape Prize are on display at the BMA, and $75,000 in honors were recently handed out in the Baker Artist Awards, also funded by the local gentry.

The city government is on board, turning a blind eye to certain loft-y lapses in building codes and running a culture department with deep roots among artists.

But most important, the artists brave enough to live in crumbling Baltimore have had the courage to take their culture into their own hands. They're up to their elbows in local festivals such as Artscape and Whartscape and the Transmodern, and there's hardly a loft building in the city whose residents haven't set space aside for showing art.

Baltimore is busy establishing itself as the ideal artistic incubator. There's only one question: Will great art come out of it?

The places

"The real gem of Baltimore is having all this space for cheap rent." That's how photographer Eddie Winter sums up the scene. He knows what he's talking about: He lives and makes art in the huge H&H building downtown, which has been home to artists for more than 15 years. The building set a pattern that's the secret weapon of the Baltimore art world: On each story, the artists have installed their studios on the floor's edges, where there's daylight, then turned the empty middle into a communal space and gallery. On the fourth floor, Winter and his fellow tenants run Gallery Four, so pristine and professional it could be in Chelsea. (Winter's studio, full of light and potted plants, is closer to a developer's image of a loft than to how artists normally live.)

On one recent visit to Gallery Four, the art on show included a fancy dining room table crossbred with a farm's bale feeder, by an artist from Idaho. There was also a plastic frog being drawn and quartered. "We just try to do our best to get the best art possible -- even if that means driving to New York, or flying someone in," says Dustin Carlson, an artist who has been in the H&H building for 14 years.

The third floor's artists, a looser group with a more alternative edge, run the Whole Gallery. Its most recent show: artist-made protest signs and banners, including some facetious campaigning for gay abortion rights.

All that seems almost genteel compared with Open Space, one of Baltimore's most recent arts communities. It's a warren of studios and practice rooms that occupies most of an auto-body building on a desolate, weed-filled corner. There's a communal kitchen -- as messy as you'd expect, awash in the classic student smells of soy sauce and brown rice -- and a rec room where bleary-eyed residents watch "The Lord of the Rings." Their "living room" is the sprawling roof, littered with old barbecues, potted tomato plants and what looks like seating pulled from a mid-century airport.

It was young Neal Reinalda, a 24-year-old from rural Pennsylvania, who discovered the vacant rental on Craigslist, then persuaded the landlord to renovate it. When he graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art -- "MICA," as it's known -- he wanted to find a way to stay put. "The general attitude in Baltimore was something I was really excited by," he says, "because if you're not really committed to your work, you aren't going to stick around."

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