As an aspiring filmmaker with a hankering to stay local, Julia Golonka loved what she was seeing on North Avenue. And as Baltimore's Station North Arts District positions itself more and more as a hub where movies and television shows are made, studied and exhibited, chances are she won't be alone.
Freshly armed with a film degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Golonka had ventured on a recent Saturday to the newly opened Centre Theatre building, just east of Charles Street. Her alma mater, along with the Johns Hopkins University to the north, will be offering a master's program in film beginning in the fall, using classroom and production space on the second floor.
"I want to be able to try to make it work here in Baltimore, instead of trying to go elsewhere," said Golonka, 22, after hearing about the course offerings and seeing some of the spaces that will soon be turned into soundstages, editing rooms, production facilities and meeting spaces — very little of which was available when Golonka was doing her undergraduate work at MICA and the film program was crammed into space in the Brown Center on Mount Royal Avenue.
"This worked out perfectly," she said with a smile, pondering the slate of classes and programs she could enroll in this fall. "I just graduated in May, and now this is here. This is great."
Such praise could become a key part of the soundtrack for the entire Station North Arts District, a once-blighted area that, over the past 15 years or so, has become home to a bohemian mix of restaurants, cultural institutions and artist spaces, and has recently begun taking on an identity more and more linked to film. The five-screen Charles Theatre, long Baltimore's premier showcase for arthouse films, operates at the southern fringe of the district, on Charles Street two blocks below North. For the past two years, the Maryland Film Festival has held its annual cinematic bacchanal at venues in the area.
Come September, more than 150 film students, split about equally between Hopkins and MICA, will be calling the Centre home, bringing even more energy into the district, which extends roughly two blocks north and south of North Avenue, and from Howard Street east to Greenmount Avenue.
And it's not stopping there. In the first quarter of 2017, the Maryland Film Festival is expected to open the renovated and expanded Parkway Theatre. The century-old moviehouse at Charles Street and North Avenue, to be rechristened the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Film Center (for the New York-based foundation that contributed $5 million to the project), will include three movie screens, with a combined seating capacity of about 600. MICA and Hopkins will have a presence in the center.
Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz can barely contain his enthusiasm for what the Station North area will grow into in a few years. "Just look at the components," he said. "Having the great Charles Theatre, with its mainstream arthouse and its programming, which is just terrific, and then adding to that these hundreds of films that we'll be showing, that don't come to Baltimore, plus all the other film-related stuff that we're going to do.
"To have a really world-class academic program, like at Hopkins, a world-class art film program, like at MICA, and I hope not too immodestly, a world-class film festival — I don't know of any other place that has that kind of coalition."
Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said in an email, "Over the last decade, we saw a great opportunity to harness the strengths of MICA and the Maryland Film Festival to broaden the arts and educational experiences for our students and our community and enhance Johns Hopkins' academic programs."
A couple of years ago, actor Kevin Spacey, whose Netflix series "House of Cards" is filming its fourth season in and around Baltimore, called the city "Hollywood East." Given what's going on in Station North, that might not be as far-fetched as it once sounded.
"I think it's kind of a no-brainer that this is going to be a huge thing," said Linda DeLibero, director of film and media studies for Hopkins. "The fact of all these young people, who are making films and making music and acting, being involved in the arts scene here ... they're going to be down here, walking around, utilizing the restaurants, the clubs, taking advantage of what's going on around here."
Hopkins started its film program about 20 years ago, while MICA began offering video as a major in 2003; they began offering joint courses in 2008. Moving both programs to the Centre will enable them to work together even more closely, making it easier for students from the two schools to share classes.
"At MICA, we tend to have kids who really are visually focused, or visual thinkers, and Hopkins tends toward the liberal arts and sciences," said Patrick Wright, director of MICA's MFA degree program in filmmaking. "In some ways, this allows us to bring two different kinds of populations, with different emphases, together to build a film curriculum in a way that's very ... reflective of the professional world."
Mike Molla, vice president of strategic initiatives at MICA, says the school has long recognized the enthusiasm for film among its students. When officials became aware of a private group's plans to renovate the Centre, which had been a movie theater in the 1940s and '50s, the school's course seemed clear.
"We knew that this was an exciting opportunity for us to expand the opportunities for current and future students to explore their art and design work through film and video," he said. "Part of it was recognizing that film and video was a core component of our institutional work in the future, and at the same time, saying to our Hopkins partners, 'Hey, you see that too?'"
For Hopkins, increasing its presence in a community such as Station North fit in with the university's long-term objectives of both expansion and being a positive force for change in Baltimore, says Andrew Frank, Hopkins' special adviser to the president on economic development. And film students, he predicted, will fall in love with Station North.
"I used to think that by making these decisions, we were helping the neighborhood, we were doing good things," Frank said. "But we, Hopkins and MICA, are benefiting a lot from this edgy location that will attract the kinds of students that want to go into the creative arts, like film."
In addition to undergraduate film studies, both schools are also starting master's film programs in the fall, which should bring even more of a film presence to Station North.
Hopkins and MICA officials say it is no longer necessary to work out of a media center such as New York or Los Angeles to enjoy a career in film. Computers, more mobile equipment and the spread of instant communications have made it easier for film and TV production to be spread over great distances.
There's no reason, says Roberto Buso-Garcia, director of the Hopkins masters program, why Baltimore could not develop into a center of production.
"We're trying to create a community in Baltimore of people who can figure out the next best way of making film and television," he said. "This is the race now: who will be the first one to market with a great idea on how to do this."
James "Buzz" Cusack, who operates the Charles and Senator theaters with his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon, sees nothing but good coming from the burgeoning film curriculum at the Centre.
"It's a great project," he said, happy with the prospect of scores of new film students spending their days on North Avenue and maybe some of their nights at his theaters.
"It's perfect for the city, it's perfect for North Avenue, it's perfect for the Charles," he said.
It's also another feather in the cap of Station North. In the 13 years since its designation as an arts district by the city, the area has attracted a steady stream of arts and performance houses (Metro Gallery, Windup Space), restaurants (Red Emma's, Joe Squared, Liam Flynn's Ale House) and artist spaces (including the former Load of Fun building, soon to reopen as The Motor House). Once seen as an unfortunate example of a once-vibrant commercial area in decline, Station North could be on its way to becoming one of Baltimore's showplace districts.
"Five years ago, I would have been much more skeptical," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Station North Arts District. "And there's always a risk; that's the development game. But there's a robust enough group of people and a group of funders that I think it will be successful."
Adds Hopkins' Frank, a former deputy mayor, "I never thought I would see the day where someone might say, 'We want the kind of retailers they have down on North Avenue.' That, to me, is another sort of awakening of the potential that North Avenue has, to be something very different from the experiences that you can have anywhere else in the city."