Baltimore Clayworks fires director's imagination

Benjamin Schulman, executive director of Baltimore Clayworks in Mount Washington, felt the need to re-introduce himself after a quiet first year on the job.

In an anniversary letter addressed to the "Clayworks community," Schulman, 40, a Mount Washingtonian and father of a kindergartner at Mount Washington Elementary/Middle School, laid out his vision for the future of the nonprofit ceramics center, which has been in business for more than three decades.

That vision includes expanding the campus on Smith Avenue, opening satellite offices in arts-starved west Baltimore, offering a bigger array of community arts programming on the Mount Washington campus, and using perks like free rent and stipends to lure talented pottery makers to Clayworks as artists in residence.

He also said he wants to make Baltimore Clayworks more financially sustainable on its own.

Currently, the center has an annual budget of about $1.1 million. About half comes from foundations, private donors and government grants, including roughly $65,000 a year from the Maryland State Arts Council. The other half comes from earned revenue, including class fees, gift shop and gallery sales, and the renting of space for three-hour birthday parties with food and ceramics instruction.

"My vision for Clayworks is to build upon our reputation and solidify our position in the field as a ceramic art center committed to artistic excellence, dedicated to artists and community, with a responsibility to contemporary ceramic art and to financial sustainability," Schulman's email states. "We will create innovative programs that reflect the history and traditions of ceramic art and that of Baltimore Clayworks, while providing opportunity for progressive ceramic artists who are redefining the field through artwork that challenges the notion of what ceramic art is and can be.

"Simultaneously, we will continue to embrace our local community through artistic programming that engages and celebrates their interests," he wrote.

Giving a tour May 18, Schulman noted that he is only the second director in Clayworks' history, following in the footsteps of longtime former director Deborah Bedwell, now a member of the board of trustees. He said he has spent the past year listening and learning and now is ready to move ahead with his own plans.

Schulman said he sees his job as being to "build on (Bedwell's) life's work and make (Clayworks) even more successful than it already is."

Building expansion

Schulman said Clayworks is in the early stages of a five-year, $2.5 million fundraising campaign to renovate and expand the gallery building on Smith Avenue to include an auditorium for 120 people for slide shows and lectures, and an enclosed courtyard.

An architect on the board is helping draw up plans, Schulman said.

The building, a former convent, houses exhibitions, a solo gallery, a gift shop called a sales gallery, and a community arts gallery and instruction component for the public, including at city recreation centers and public schools.

Schulman said Baltimore Clayworks has the most extensive community arts program in the nation, and that he wants more such programming, which already includes ceramics instruction at Tuerk House, a drug and rehabilitation center in west Baltimore.

Clayworks might open at least one satellite office in west Baltimore, with the aim of bringing ceramic arts to the city's disadvantaged neighborhoods, Schulman said.

"It builds life skills," he said. "It builds confidence."

The center also sponsors a program called "Buy a Cup, Give a Class," in which revenues from sales of special cups made by artists in residence help pay for classes for people who otherwise couldn't afford the classes, Schulman said.

"It's social entrepreneurship in a way," he said.

Across the street is the center's original building, a former public library branch donated by the city. It houses artist studios and three classrooms. Evening classes are especially popular, and sometimes three classes are in session at the same time, he said.

That building gained an addition in 2005, and no further expansion is planned there, Schulman said.

Working in the studios are 10 artists in residence, who split their artwork sales 60-40 with Clayworks.

Also hard at work, making an abstract "source code" of ceramic binary numbers for an exhibit with the working title "I Dream, You Think," is Shalya Marsh, of 35, of Lancaster, Pa., who has a one-year fellowship that comes with free rent and a stipend, as well as the promise of a solo exhibit in the gallery building.

"I feel like my priority is my art work," said Marsh, who quit her job as a teacher to take the fellowship at Clayworks and is living in Mount Washington for the year, apart from her family in Lancaster.

"They want to be here," said Schulman, a former ceramic artist, academic, curator and critic with a master's degree in fine arts. "One of my goals is to do more of this for more artists. I want to find more ways to support the artists and subsidize them."

He described his vision as less a physical expansion than "strengthening and building beyond" the current programming.

But why would he reintroduce himself and spell out his vision now, a year after he came?

"People didn't realize there was a transition and (that Bedwell) had retired," Schulman said. "We got busy and we didn't do a proper introduction.

"I want to meet as many people as possible."

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