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

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, July 11, 2010; E03

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."

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."

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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