In 2016, Baltimore had an outsized impact on the nation's – and world's – cultural conversations

In 2016, Baltimore artists helped America figure itself out

For a city with a fraction of the population of such giants as New York and Los Angeles, Baltimore is having an outsized impact on the nation's — and increasingly the world's — cultural conversations.

From the #OscarsSoWhite campaign led by two former Baltimoreans to the former head of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, Carla Hayden, becoming the first woman and first African-American appointed as librarian of Congress, what happens in Baltimore is increasingly playing a significant role in how America defines itself.

Here are some of the moments from Baltimore's art scene — some lighthearted, some not so much — that have made headlines in the past 12 months:

The inaugural Light City Baltimore festival of the visual arts, music and innovation debuted March 28 in a glow of optimism. The first large-scale, international light festival in the U.S. drew 400,000 visitors (more than 40 percent from out of town) and contributed $33.8 million to the local economy in March and April, a study released in May found.

But a shadow fell over the fest in the fall. Dueling lawsuits were filed in federal court by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and the husband-and-wife team who came up with the idea for the event. A judge will decide whether Brooke Hall and Justin Allen or the city of Baltimore have the right to trademarks associated with Light City.

Both sides say they don't want to dim the wattage of the second annual festival this coming year, scheduled to begin March 31.

A dispute of a different sort began in December, when dozens of artists were suddenly evicted from the Bell Foundry, a converted warehouse in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District that city officials said was rife with safety violations and described as "a tragedy waiting to happen." The building was closed just three days after a fire ripped through a similar type of artists' collective in Oakland, Calif., called the Ghost Ship during an electronic dance concert, killing 36 people. The fire and crackdowns at venues like the Bell Foundry touched off a nationwide discussion about the need to provide safe and affordable housing for cash-strapped artists.

The hashtag heard 'round the world

It was Howard County resident April Reign who in 2015 coined #OscarsSoWhite, which became a rallying cry for those protesting the lack of diversity at the annual Academy Awards.

When there were no people of color nominated in top categories again this year, Reign's hashtag began picking up traction. Actress and former Baltimorean Jada Pinkett Smith called for a boycott of the ceremony — later joined by her actor-husband, Will Smith, and filmmaker Spike Lee. In the ensuing hubbub, seemingly every celebrity in America, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, weighed in.

Speaking of the president-elect, the trio of Baltimore comics and hip-hop artists known as Dooley, Tlow and Lor Roger wrote a rap song dissing Trump called "CIT4DT," or "Choppa In A Trunk 4 Donald Trump." The funny and at-times crudely worded song went viral this past spring after the three recorded a short video, which has been downloaded more than 600,000 times on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop.com. Though the lyrics sound threatening, Dooley said they weren't meant to be taken literally, saying "I wouldn't kill an innocent fly."

Raising the barre

Baltimore recently ended a dance drought of almost a quarter-century. This month, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland began a permanent residency at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, giving the city its first fully professional dance company since 1993.

The Ballet Theatre's inaugural year in Baltimore will be relatively low-key, with just five performances, including four of "The Nutcracker."

Eventually, artistic director Dianna Cuatto hopes to stage four productions a year, the same number mounted annually in the company's home base of Annapolis. In addition, Cuatto hopes to begin outreach programs in Baltimore neighborhoods and schools.

Trailblazers

When President Barack Obama needed someone to modernize the badly outdated Library of Congress, he reached out to Carla Hayden, the chief executive officer of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and an old friend from the president's Chicago days. Hayden, who was sworn in Sept. 14, is the first woman and first African-American to become librarian of Congress.

Advocates pointed to her transformation of the 22-branch Pratt, turning it from a declining institution to a national leader in using technology to serve the public, and praised her decision to keep the library's Pennsylvania Avenue branch open during the unrest sparked by the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray.

One week after Hayden's confirmation, Joyce J. Scott, a Baltimore artist known for her intricate and often provocative jewelry and beaded sculptures, received what she initially thought was a prank call informing her that she'd been chosen as a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and would receive an unrestricted stipend of $625,000.

At the time, the artist was suffering from sciatica and was in no mood to be the butt of a joke about winning one of the so-called "genius grants."

"I'm yelling, 'Who is this? Prove it to me,'" Scott told Sun reporter Tim Smith. "Then, through my pain and sodden malaise, I realized this is the real thing. I almost threw up."

The MacArthur selection committee described Scott's art as "a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices."

From ashes to art

In the first full calendar year after Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while being transported in a police van, Baltimore's artists continue to grapple directly and indirectly with the tragedy. Some artists, such as street photographer Devin Allen, rose to national and even international prominence. The recent spate of high-profile police killings in Baltimore and elsewhere has generated not just poetry and essays, but music (such as "Mother's Lament" by Vincent Dion Stringer and James Lee III) and multimedia exhibits (including "Baltimore Rising" at the Maryland Institute College of Art.)

Chances are there will be more artistic responses to this watershed moment in Baltimore's history in years to come.

'Serial' sequel

Adnan Syed would never have won a new trial on June 30 in connection with the 1999 slaying of high school senior Hae Min Lee if it hadn't been for Rabia Chaudry, an attorney who spent 17 years battling the arrest and subsequent conviction of her lifelong family friend.

In August, St. Martin's Press published "Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice after 'Serial'" in which Chaudry describes her 17-year campaign to free Syed, including her success at interesting the producers of a new podcast named "Serial" in the case.

"Adnan's Story" briefly made The New York Times' list of best-selling hardcover books, and was chosen as a Washington Post notable nonfiction book for 2016.

John Waters' very good year

OK, when does the prolifically creative filmmaker, visual artist and Baltimore eccentric not have a very good year?

Still, 2016 was notable because it included "Hairspray Live!" on NBC this month, an adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical (based on Waters' 1988 film) that starred the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Kristin Chenoweth and Harvey Fierstein and introduced newcomer Maddie Baillio as the teenage Tracy Turnblad.

In addition, the Baltimore Museum of Art has been showing Waters' "Kiddie Flamingos" on a continuous loop since Sept. 21. Waters has described the 74-minute G-rated video featuring all children — a remake of his 1972 cult classic "Pink Flamingos" — as more perverse than the original. It runs through Jan. 22.

"Multiple Maniacs," Waters' second film (and the first with dialogue) from 1970 was restored by the Criterion Collection and rereleased over the summer for a limited theatrical run.

Finally, The Writers Guild of America, East announced in December that it will be giving Waters a lifetime achievement award.

In other film news, the small Frederick County town of Burkittsville returned to the spotlight when the third "Blair Witch" movie was released in September. Local residents once again fielded inquiries about whether the original 1999 film and two sequels are based on a true story. (Spoiler alert – No.)

"House of Cards," the popular political potboiler on Netflix, filmed in Maryland for the fifth straight year.

One of Baltimore's favorite daughters, Oprah Winfrey, returned to her old stamping grounds this fall to film scenes from "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" for HBO. The television movie is based on a local woman who unwittingly donated a line of cells instrumental in achieving medical breakthroughs that were financial windfall for everyone involved — except Lacks and her family. A portrait of Lacks was dedicated this month in Baltimore's City Hall.

Also in September, Netflix debuted a children's series, "Kulipari" based on a trilogy of children's books by former Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce. The books — which morphed into a mobile app, Internet game, comic book series and toy and clothing lines — star a wannabe warrior frog who faces off against amphibian-eating scorpions. The series has been translated into Japanese, Farsi, German and other languages.

Welcome to Baltimore, hon. Now, get to work

Some of the city's biggest arts groups selected new leaders this year. Wanda Q. Draper, former director of programming and public affairs for WBAL-TV, took over as executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture on Sept. 28. Pennsylvania native Vickie Hubbard will become executive director of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Jan. 3. In December, Peter T. Kjome was named president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, effective Feb. 1. He was president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan. And Christopher Bedford started work Aug. 15 as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Just four months into his new job, Bedford has shown a knack for making headlines.

In October, the Baltimore museum was selected to put together the U.S. entry for the Venice Biennale, often described as the Olympics of the art world, which will be held in Italy from May 13 to Nov. 26 next year. The 2015 festival included entries from 53 nations. More than 500,000 visitors attended the seven-month event and 670 journalists stopped by the U.S. pavilion.

The U.S. Pavilion will highlight the work of Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford for the 2017 Biennale. After leaving Italy, the installation will travel to the Baltimore museum in the spring of 2018.

As Bedford put it: "Without question, this is the greatest honor accorded in the contemporary art world. This is so prestigious, so deeply and totally global that it instantly plants the BMA in the international spotlight."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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