Surrounded by local visual and performing artists, officials unveiled plans Monday for the overhaul of the historic Ambassador Theater, a long-vacant art deco cultural hub in Northwest Baltimore.
Opened in 1935, the nearly 1,000-seat movie theater closed in 1968. Later, it served as a roller skating rink, cosmetology school, church and catering hall, but none of those efforts stayed viable. A 2012 fire destroyed what remained of its insides.
But the facility will reopen soon as a studio space, gallery and rentable dance theater for Baltimore artists. Purchased in 2019 by a Minneapolis-based nonprofit called Artspace, the theater will undergo an estimated $18 million to $20 million overhaul, officials said at a celebratory kickoff event across Liberty Heights Avenue from the venerable structure.
“A key and constant message from the community and the artists engagement sessions is that the redevelopment of the Ambassador Theater should serve and focus on the need for a home that develops the skillsets of Black artists and provides programming reflective of the community which it surrounds,” said Stacey Mickelson, an Artspace vice president who oversees the organization’s Mid-Atlantic ventures. “There’s been a key noted difference in the development of Black artists, and oftentimes their development is hampered by the lack of dedicated and affordable space within the community for them to create.”
Studio space, especially those with affordable rents, is scarce in Baltimore and other major metropolitan areas. In a rapidly changing city with several large-scale development projects on the way, the shortfall could become even more pronounced, especially after the havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic among artists and creatives.
Mickelson said the organization likely won’t restore seating to the theater, but it will retain and upgrade much of the historic architectural elements.
The city put The Ambassador into receivership in October 2016. Artspace, which is overseeing several residential and commercial projects across the country, including two others in Maryland, bought it at auction for $100,001.
Artspace plans to complete the new Ambassador without taking on debt, financing the project with state and federal funds, historic tax credits, community development dollars, and national and local philanthropic donations, Mickelson said. State bonds already have been secured.
Community leaders and elected officials who serve the area said the theater, across the street from a recently opened ShopRite grocery store, will help catalyze more growth in the Howard Park neighborhood, which has faced generational disinvestment as a predominantly Black locality.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a native of Northwest Baltimore, said providing a space for young artists to pursue their passions will help cultivate the next generation of leaders.
“We have to, and we will, build trust and cultivate an inclusive economy by investing in Black- and women-owned businesses and our communities,” Scott said. “We can no longer be an administration and a city that goes in and says, ‘OK, we are going to focus on bringing in new people and new things.’ We have to invest in the communities and the people that have stayed in Baltimore for so long.”
Other officials including Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, State Sen. Jill P. Carter and U.S. Rep Kweisi Mfume spoke at Monday’s event. Performances by Rufus Roundtree & Da B’More Brass Factory, 2019 Baltimore City Youth Poet Laureate Deleicea Greene and musician Eze Jackson, as well as the unveiling of a new exterior mural, rounded out the celebration.