This was the year of observable change, of a discernible shift in the status quo. It was a year when social attitudes about sex and race that had been imperceptibly shifting for decades suddenly seemed to achieve cumulative mass, and pillars of American society — both literal and figurative — came toppling down.
One result has been numerous conversations between family members, friends, co-workers and even strangers in corporate boardrooms, at the breakfast table, and at the grocery store — and more often than not, the name of a Baltimore artist or arts organization has figured in that discussion.
When Netflix shut down production of “House of Cards,” the award-winning television show filmed in the Baltimore area, because of sexual harassment allegations made against the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, it made national news. Ditto when Baltimore artist Paul Rucker’s art exhibit of life-sized mannequins clad in Ku Klux Klan robes was deemed so potentially inflammatory that a Pennsylvania college closed the show to the public. More quietly, in the past year, the size 14 Randallstown native Liris Crosse became a leading face for new standards of physical beauty. Crosse, who been described as “the plus-sized Naomi Campbell,” was one of two full-figured models appearing on “Project Runway” to be invited in the season finale to pose for a digital spread in the fashion magazine, Marie Claire.
Below is a look at the arrivals and departures in the local arts scene in 2017, the triumphs and embarrassments, and the ways in which Baltimore was portrayed to the outside world on the small and large screens.
The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts twice became embroiled in controversies that made news this spring. In April, a legal wrangle over ownership of the trademarks to Light City Baltimore, the city’s 2-year-old festival of illuminated artworks, was settled out of court. BOPA retained the rights to the trademarks after paying an undisclosed sum to Justin Allen and Brooke Hall, the festival’s co-founders.
The following month, BOPA succumbed to community pressure and publicly un-invited author Rachel Dolezal from presenting her autobiography at the 2017 Baltimore Book Festival. Dolezal resigned in 2015 as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she is a white woman who had portrayed herself as black. BOPA rescinded its invitation after more than 100 readers signed an online petition.
In August, the late author Tom Clancy’s former wife and his widow, Alexandra Clancy, put a new spin on a custody dispute. A lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court seeks to determine whether Clancy’s first wife, Wanda King, is entitled to money generated by books published posthumously that feature the late novelist’s most famous progeny — the fictitious spy Jack Ryan.
Shortly thereafter, officials at York College of Pennsylvania faced questions about why an institution dedicated to intellectual freedom was barring the public from Rucker’s “Rewind” exhibit. The college decided to limit attendance to the campus community and invited guests a few weeks after three people were killed and 35 injured during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
But the brouhaha with the greatest potential consequences for Maryland erupted in October amid a spate of sexual harassment allegations made against previously untouchable cultural pundits from movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to television host Charlie Rose.
Filming for the sixth season of “House of Cards” was temporarily suspended after actor Anthony Rapp claimed that in 1986, when he was 14 years old, Spacey threw him on a bed and then climbed on top of him. In a response to the allegations, Spacey said on Twitter he didn’t remember the incident, and then announced he was gay. He said if the allegations happened as Rapp described, Spacey owed Rapp an apology for “what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Since then, several men, including a former “House of Cards” production assistant and actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son have also made sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey. Netflix announced in early December that it would resume shooting an abbreviated, eight-episode of the final season in early 2018 without Spacey but starring Robin Wright as U.S. President Claire Underwood.
How the World Sees Baltimore
Charm City has long enjoyed a hold on the nation’s imagination disproportionate to its size. The city was the setting this year for at least seven films on the big and small screens that dealt directly or indirectly with race. One movie — “Step” a documentary by Owings Mills native Amanda Lipitz that follows members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s step team — has even generated Oscar buzz.
Other films of note include:
*The PBS documentary, “Accidental Courtesy” which followed Daryl Davis, an African-American musician and Maryland resident, who for the past 25 years has sought to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan. The film aired in February and featured local activists Kwame Rose, Tariq Touré and J.C. Faulk.
*In April, Oprah Winfrey delivered a much-praised performance in the HBO movie, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Winfrey played the daughter of the title character, whose cancerous cells, harvested in 1951 without her knowledge, resulted in unprecedented medical breakthroughs.
*In September, Theo Anthony’s “Rat Film” (with a soundtrack by Dan Deacon) which highlights Baltimore’s rodent warfare and urban planning failures, was picked up for nationwide distribution in Baltimore, Chicago and New York.
*And “Baltimore Rising,” a documentary by actress Sonja Sohn that aired on HBO in November and December, featured interviews with law enforcement officers, community leaders and gang members who tried to hold the city together during the violent protests that erupted in 2015 after Freddie Gray was fatally injured while in police custody.
Baltimore(area)ans We’re Proud Of:
The artist Amy Sherald, whose commission to paint the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama was announced in October. Towson University professor Leslie Harrison, whose “The Book of Endings” one of five titles shortlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry. Shakur, inducted in April into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Bel Air author Richard Chizmar landed a dream collaborator — Stephen King — for their novella, “Gwendy’s Button Box,” published in May. Actor Andy Karl was nominated for a Tony Award for best leading actor in a musical after an onstage leg injury almost prevented him from starring in the Broadway musical, “Groundhog Day.” Gilman School graduate Bradley King picked up a Tony in June for best lighting design of a musical for "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812." Writer David Simon collaborated with George Pelecanos to create “The Deuce” for HBO — one of the best-reviewed new television shows of 2017. Singer and Severn native Toni Braxton won the Soul Train Music Award’s Legend prize in November. Deale, Md., natives Brothers Osborne have been nominated for two Grammy Awards and in November picked up 2017 Vocal Duo of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. Finally, we offer kudos to Crosse, the curvaceous beauty who’s helping to demonstrate that fashion is for everyone.
Embracing New Audiences:
The long overdue Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center and state park were dedicated in March, introducing visitors to the Dorchester County sites that helped form the indomitable abolitionist, who returned to Maryland 13 times after her own escape to guide about 70 enslaved family members and friends to freedom.
On a similar vein, the Baltimore Museum of Art and artist Mark Bradford grappled with America’s slave-owning history in May, when they represented the U.S. in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as the “Art World Olympics.” Among other things, Bradford roughed up the U.S. Pavilion, which is modeled on Monticello, by strewing trash on the grounds and tearing away chunks of wall plaster.
The exhibit will travel to Baltimore next fall, and will coincide with a partnership between Bradford, the museum and the Greenmount West Community Center that will provide a silk-screening workshop for at-risk kids aimed at providing them with entrepreneurial skills they can use to escape poverty.
Meanwhile, the 102-year-old movie palace, the Parkway Theatre, reopened to the public in May after an $18.2 million renovation. (It had been closed since 1978.) Not only was the beautiful new theater a boon for cinephiles, it’s helping to revitalize a formerly dilapidated stretch of North Avenue.
In fact, 2017 was a great year to celebrate the survival of many old favorites.
In July, Merriweather Post Pavilion’s 50th anniversary concert drew such music legends as Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne. In October, a charity that gives away books for free began a new chapter. The Book Thing reopened 19 months after it was ravaged by fire. And Baltimore Clayworks reopened in October, three months after the previous board of directors voted to close the ceramic arts center and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The new organization’s board is working to pay off about $1 million in debt.
So Long, Farewell
2017 meant saying goodbye to old friends and cherished daily rituals. Marc Steiner’s 24 year run of hosting a daily talk show on Baltimore airwaves ended in July after his contract at WEAA-FM wasn’t renewed. (A podcast version is being produced by Steiner’s Center for Emerging Media.) In March, Deana Haggag, who helped resurrect the Contemporary museum after it abruptly shut down in 2012, left that job and moved to Chicago to become president and CEO of United States Artists. The museum later announced it was going on hiatus. In December, Bill Gilmore stepped down as executive director of BOPA after 37 years with the organization. During his tenure, Gilmore came up with the idea for the book fest and oversaw the creation of such annual events as Light City and Free Fall Baltimore.
For now, we can still enjoy the company of Kwame Kwei-Armah, Center Stage’s adventurous artistic director, though he’s announced plans to depart June when his contract expires. And while we’ll miss watching Tom Hall lead the Baltimore Choral Arts Society after 35 years as music director, we’re excited to welcome Anthony Blake Clark, who stepped into that post on July 1. Hall still hosts the “Midday” show on WYPR-FM.
Ditched and Hitched:
We were bummed at the August announcement that the Baltimore-born comedienne Anna Faris and funny hubby Chris Pratt were splitting. But we cheered up when Reddit co-founder and Columbia native Alexis Ohanian married tennis star Serena Williams in a suitably over-the-top, November ceremony in New Orleans.