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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.

There are limits to how long that can keep an artist inspired. "It's a great community for starting out and getting your feet wet," says Christine Bailey, a Corcoran instructor who is one of Baltimore's most radical artists. She is considering a move.

Royer, the performance artist, is already on his way out, heading for a PhD in performance studies at Brown in Rhode Island. "I don't know that the art scene has a high enough ceiling to keep people here," he says.

But he still defends the unserious side of Baltimore art. "It might have that lack of focus on a skill set, but there is still something there. . . . The word 'fun.' You can't use it enough to talk about Baltimore."

"Half the time, it's like a party," adds his friend Mary Helena Clark, an experimental filmmaker, sitting by him at the Dizz.

Another Baltimore trademark, revealed in this year's Sondheim picks, is its blending of disciplines. Alongside artists who make sculptures and installations, the Sondheim finalists include Matt Porterfield, well known as an indie filmmaker, and Karen Yasinsky, a Johns Hopkins lecturer who's presenting hand-drawn animations.

All that's missing at the Sondheims is an alt-rock musician, because it seems that half of Baltimore's artists are also in bands. Asked to show off the local art scene, Hileman, from the BMA, includes a visit to a deconsecrated, dilapidated church for a concert of modernist music. (Hot kettles squealing on blocks of dry ice; a female vocalist who squeaks and shrieks and rumbles.)

All this mixing of bohemian and sober, of art and music and theater and film, suggests another possibility: that it's the scene itself, in all its fascinating complexity, that is the true work of art in Baltimore. These days, the idea of counting "life" as "art" has the grand name of "relational aesthetics," and it's a bit of a Baltimore specialty. Last year's Sondheim winner was a collective whose "works" included a community garden in east Baltimore, as well as a scruffy little pavilion outside the BMA that came with an open invitation for groups to hold events in it.

"I like to think that the definition of art is expansive enough that the community could exist as the artwork," says Hileman.

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