Pugh announces task force to create 'safe art spaces' in Baltimore after Bell Foundry evictions

Baltimore's mayor wants to create "safe, cost-effective" spaces for young artists to live.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh on Wednesday charged a new task force with recommending how to create "safe, cost-effective" spaces for young artists to live.

The new group was formed in response to dozens of local artists being evicted this month from work spaces at the Bell Foundry building in Baltimore's Station North Arts District. City officials said the building was unsafe.

"We can't sit back when situations like this exist in our city and allow them to fester," Pugh said.

She said her Safe Art Spaces task force, which has 22 members, will seek to address city officials' concerns about artists living and working in spaces that could pose safety hazards and aren't zoned for those uses. Officials said they found a variety of safety violations at the two-story Bell Foundry building on Dec. 5, when they ordered the evacuation.

Pugh cited a deadly Dec. 2 warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., as further reason for forming the task force. The fire killed dozens living in a shared space for artists.

"Everybody needs to be included and accommodated," Pugh said. "Artists make a contribution. ... We believe that art is everything. We believe that design is everything."

Pugh selected Jon Laria, partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm, and Frank McNeil, a vice president at PNC Bank, as co-chairmen of the task force. A number of artists and art organizations are represented, including musician Dan Deacon, Station North Arts and Entertainment director Elissa Blount-Moorhead and Lu Zhang, deputy director of The Contemporary, a nomadic arts museum.

Aran Keating cautiously welcomed news of the task force. Keating is artistic director of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, which was forced out of the Bell Foundry building this month.

Code enforcement inspectors determined that there were "holes in the floor on the second level, electrical issues, and evidence that individuals were living in the property without a proper use and occupancy permit," according to the city.

Since the eviction, Keating said, there is no gas or heat in the building and the rock opera performers are forbidden to use it. He said the musicians have been forced to practice in living rooms and basements — a setback for the growing organization.

"We have a shortage of those spaces," he said of properties where artists can live, work or perform. "This is a great arts city, and it needs to continue to be that way. No one wants Baltimore to become like D.C., where there are no artists who can afford the rent.

"If we don't get a space out of this," Keating said of the task force, "then that's basically Baltimore City telling us they don't want us to exist."

Gianna Rodriguez, director of Baltimore Youth Arts, an after-school program that provides artistic opportunities for teens and young adults, said a landlord recently evicted her organization from a work space in Greenmount West. The eviction came after some students got into an argument with the guest of another tenant.

The program has since set up elsewhere, but the space isn't permanent.

"It's really interfered with everything," she said of the eviction. "We're still trying to figure out our next step."

Rodriguez sees her group's eviction and the city's actions at the Bell Foundry as "really reactionary."

She said she hopes the newly formed task force will "make the effort to work with communities of artists, rather than pushing them out on streets, to ensure that spaces are safe." She said she hopes the task force will listen to diverse points of view.

Laria said task force members plan to include artists in their decision-making process.

"As a city, we have an opportunity and even an obligation to provide safe and affordable space for living, for working, for performing," said Laria, who frequently represents developers in Baltimore. "It's going to take people who understand how to finance, how to build, and it's going to take an inclusive effort that listens to everyone in the community."

Laria said he hoped to have a final report with recommendations finished within six months.

"Although the mayor has not given us an explicit deadline, it is clear she wants this done inclusively but briskly so we can turn to implementation," he said.

The situations in Oakland and Baltimore have drawn attention to how young artists use living and studio spaces in cities.

Artists and Baltimore officials agree the debate around such spaces is complicated. Issues involve public safety, affordable housing, the value of artists and the appeal of do-it-yourself art spaces, despite their sometimes-questionable legal status.

Blount-Moorhead said the Baltimore task force's recommendations could become a model for other cities that want to identify and build affordable spots for artists.

"We recognize this task force has a very rigorous, complicated task to complete," she said. "We're up for it."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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