Ensuring safe spaces for Baltimore artists

Baltimore's arts community, which plays a key role in building the city’s creative economy and stabilizing neighborhoods, has a lot to be hopeful for since Mayor Catherine Pugh created a Task Force on Safe Arts Space and issued an executive order allowing artists to remain in living spaces despite building code violations as long there was no “imminent threat to life or safety.”

In the past year, Baltimore has not had one major space permanently close, even as Baltimore City’s Code Enforcement and Fire Departments have responded to safety concerns regarding more than 400,000 square feet of space where more than 300 artists live and work.

City officials instead have engaged collaboratively with owners rather than shutter buildings and displace artists. The old Post Office site in Johnston Square is a prime example of this approach. When a broken sprinkler pipe flooded the building last month, it would have been easiest for the city to close the 50,000-square-foot building. However, thanks to the executive order, Baltimore Housing and Fire Departments walked the building with the owner and agreed that only a small portion of the building had to be vacated while repairs were being made.

For each arts space there is no “one size fits all” roadmap to follow. Each property is unique. Many are former industrial buildings where owners have funded improvements out of yearly rental income over a 10-15 year period. Bringing these spaces into code compliance requires creative problem solving by all parties to retain the mix of uses that make them special — music and art studios, makerspaces, affordable housing, performance and gallery spaces — all while minimizing the cost to upgrade properties and keeping them affordable.

The city's efforts have benefited from the strong array of organizations that were already on the ground working on this issue even before the task force was convened. For instance:

  • In 2016, the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corporation secured $800,000 in state funds for city-owned properties that will be owned and redeveloped by artist-led groups in the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District.
  • In late 2016, the Reinvestment Fund, a non-profit lender, successfully secured a $3 million investment from the Kresge Foundation to provide low-cost loans to arts spaces in Baltimore, New Orleans and Atlanta. A portion of those funds was used this fall for an artist-owned building that is making safety upgrades in central Baltimore.
  • The non-profit organization Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO) recently launched its Arts Space Technical Assistance program to advocate for and provide technical assistance to projects in developing code compliance strategies and securing funding to make safety improvements. Working with the Central Baltimore Partnership, BARCO also helped to secure $400,000 in state funds for two long-time artist-owned projects in central Baltimore to make code improvements.

The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance has secured a commitment from the Doris Duke Foundation so that Baltimore can be the third city in the country to launch an Art in Sacred Spaces initiative to connect artists with congregations that have affordable, underutilized spaces.

These are just a few examples of the initiatives that are underway to respond to the needs identified by the mayor’s task force. Other organizations — including Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Dovecote Cafe, the Neighborhood Design Center and Neighborhood Housing Services — are providing support to help artists secure safe and affordable spaces. Local funders, such as the RW Deutsch Foundation, the Goldseker Foundation, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund and the Baltimore Heritage Area are also providing critical matching funds.

Preserving long-term, safe, affordable arts space is a challenging issue, but the dedication and diligence of property owners, artists, city and state officials and nonprofit organizations committed to the task is encouraging. To continue on this path to success, the city and funders should support the task force’s recommendations, including: securing additional public, private and foundation resources to support arts space projects and establishing a permanent team of city agency representatives to fine tune the city’s approach. If these collaborative strategies are successfully implemented, Baltimore will be well on its way to securing a significant amount of space for the arts — something few other cities around the country have accomplished.

Amy Bonitz (amy@baltimoreartsrealty.com) is president and CEO of the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO), a non-profit that works to develop safe, affordable spaces for Baltimore's artists, makers and creatives.

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