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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.

If Reinalda and his colleagues aren't in their studios, they're likely to be found in a clean white-cube gallery that 12 of the tenants have cut out of their share of the building. Like Gallery Four, the gallery at Open Space is surprisingly polished, with sophisticated art: Cryptic photos hang on its white walls; a sculpture on its concrete floor is nothing more that a bright orange bucket split down the middle. Baltimore, Reinalda says, "is the kind of city where I can do this: be 24 and have only an undergraduate degree and know nothing about business, and open a gallery." (He pays his bills by doing maintenance at MICA. Lots of the Baltimore artists interviewed for this article have day jobs at local arts institutions.)

Ric Royer, a 32-year-old pioneer of the performance scene, is lunching near Open Space at a joint called the Dizz, where beer costs as little as $3.50 and you can get a hot meal for less than $10. He cites a MICA survey that found that prospective students now think of the art school's location in Baltimore, well-known to their parents for its poverty and crime, as more of a plus than a drawback -- "a phenomenal statistic, in terms of Baltimore as a destination for artists," Royer says.

The people

"I heard that Baltimore had an up-and-coming art community and cheap space, and 17 years later, it does have an up-and-coming art community, and relatively cheap space," says sculptor Jennifer Stewart Watson. (She goes by Stewart, her mother's maiden name.) Both community and space are the direct result of people like her.

In 2002, after almost a decade of precarious under-the-radar loft living -- Watson cites the time her leg went through the floor, as well as the drawbacks of sharing space with a peanut roaster -- she found six partners, scraped together $170,000 and bought a 66,000-square-foot factory once used to make Venetian blinds, in the rough neighborhood behind the train station. The area has since been christened the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

The partners now rent studios to something like 25 artists. And that still leaves room for Watson, who is 41, to store her 1948 Chevy truck in a gymnasium-size room where she and her artist-husband weld their sculptures.

A tour through the rental studios reveals a tidy young textile artist turning out handcrafted purses -- the more business-savvy end of the scene -- as well as a young MICA instructor lost in a cloud of paint fumes, working through a recent move from figuration to what he describes as "alchemical" abstraction.

There's also space for that Baltimore specialty, an artist-run exhibition space, in this case called Area 405. Watson and other artists use it to mount shows of sculpture and installation art "that can only exist here," she says -- "here" being a huge stone-walled space so crude that anything tame would get overwhelmed.

"It's amazing how much activity there is. Every night of the week, there's something happening," says Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Every artist you talk to cites her as one of their scene's most enthusiastic backers. "I see her at the most obscure things, where you don't expect to see the Big Boss," says Winter, the photographer from H&H. (He works days on the installation team at the BMA.)

Sure enough, there Bolger is, late one evening at Club Charles, a funky bar in Station North. She sits surrounded by the artists she supports, including two hirsute young men in frocks. They are Michael Farley and Ryan Mitchell, who are on the board of the nearby Annex theater and gallery and, the night they were out with Bolger, had just been feted for receiving a grant.

"We were like, 'We're going to a fancy party, so let's wear something fancy,' " says Farley, who is 22, a native Baltimorean and a MICA grad. His most typical artworks, he says, draw parallels between the culture of powerful conservatives and "S&M and fetish and kind of kinky things they'd be totally appalled by." He's working on a public sculpture, commissioned for Artscape, that's a hybrid of a peep show and a police surveillance camera.

The art?

"In any city, in any place in the world, the percentage of art that is considered great is going to be very small," says Kristen Hileman, a Smithsonian curator whom Bolger recently grabbed for the BMA. So far, no art stars have emerged from the Baltimore scene.

If anything, a good number of the city's artists seem in it for the bohemian cred, rather than for the chance to make serious, challenging art. They're about living in a garret, wearing a (metaphorical) beret and producing objects that are best described as "fun," "wacky" and "weird."

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