It's a heady time for Baltimore's art scene, with some of the city's venerable artistic institutions in promising flux. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the new artistic director of professional theater company Center Stage-which this year celebrates 50 years of existence-has planned an intellectually engaging first season, the Everyman Theatre moves into its regal new Westside space this fall, and the Baltimore Museum of Art is in the midst of a $24 million renovation. Meanwhile, Baltimore has become such a mecca for young artists that it's difficult to keep track of all the new theater companies, galleries, and spontaneous art happenings constantly emerging. One of the most visible such endeavors of the past year is Open Walls Baltimore, a massive, city-sanctioned Station North mural project that includes pieces by internationally acclaimed street artists. That's one "museum" you can visit for free, but there are numerous others. And those local cultural sites that charge admission are generally well worth the price. Here's an abbreviated guide to both sorts. Happy hunting.
American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway, (410) 244-1900, avam.org
The Visionary is a museum for people who think they don't like museums. Ensconced in a glittery, mirrored building in Federal Hill, it is devoted to the work of outsider artists: people with no formal training and often intriguing back-stories. Here you'll find the work of artists locked up their entire lives in mental institutions or prisons and others who simply became fascinated with a particular subject or material-like toothpicks; a giant replica of the Lusitania dominates one gallery. Many of AVAM's pieces, like Paul Spooner's incredibly intricate mobile wooden automatons, are the sort to make one wonder anew about the magical possibilities of art.
Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive, (443) 573-1700, artbma.org
The BMA is a treasure, even at its temporarily reduced capacity. (Because of ongoing renovations, the Contemporary collection won't reopen to the public until this fall.) The museum is undersung outside of its hometown, so you may be surprised to learn the breadth of its collection, which includes some 90,000 works of art. The largest collection of Henri Matisse pieces in the world resides here, as do many works by Andy Warhol and contemporary artists like Kara Walker. The BMA also has one of the most important collections of African art in the country. Best of all? Barring special exhibits, admission is free.
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
830 E. Pratt St., (443) 263-1800, africanamericanculture.org
This fairly new institution is dedicated to the history of the state's African Americans. Besides the permanent exhibitions-which include an in-depth look at the history of slavery in Maryland-the museum brings in a constant rotation of temporary exhibitions. Current examples include Growing up AFRO: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro-American Newspapers, through Dec. 30, 2012.
Walters Art Museum
600 N. Charles St., (410) 547-9000, thewalters.org
The Walters houses a collection of world art ranging from Egyptian mummies to Art Deco jewelry, nearly all of it amassed by banker and railway magnate William Walters and his son Henry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that collection, housed in an elegant collection of structures in Mount Vernon, is often displayed quite creatively. The cabinet of curiosities-meant to imitate the sort a 17th-century European nobleman might have had-is one of our favorites, and a hit with kids. Here a narwhal tusk, a giant stuffed alligator, and a gloriously colorful collection of pinned beetles share space with Baroque landscapes, pre-Columbian nose rings, and Renaissance reliquaries. A feast for the eyes, and like the rest of the Walters' permanent collection, entirely free.
Art Centers And Galleries
C. Grimaldis Gallery
523 N. Charles St., (410) 539-1080, cgrimaldisgallery.com
Grimaldis has been on the scene since 1977, making it the city's oldest contemporary art gallery. While the gallery began by exhibiting mostly local artists, it went on to feature well-known artists like Grace Hartigan and Robert Rauschenberg. An esteemed venue for any artist, Grimaldis has repeatedly won Best Gallery in City Paper's annual Best of Baltimore issue.
Creative Alliance at the Patterson
3134 Eastern Ave., (410) 276-1651, creativealliance.org
What would we do without the Creative Alliance? A Highlandtown venue that hosts everything from art exhibitions to film screenings to country hoedowns to burlesque, the CA is the catch-all for the kind of spirited, community-minded stuff you just can't find anywhere else.
3000 Chestnut Ave., Studio 214, (410) 366-2001, goyacontemporary.com
Tucked away in a cranny of Hampden's Mill Centre, Goya is a major player in the national and international art scene, with regular out-of-town visitors and an impressive roster of artists.
1826 Fleet St., guestspot.org
This newcomer to the gallery scene, located smack-dab in director/curator Rod Malin's Fells Point home, doesn't seem to have had any growing pains. Its shows, which still number less than a dozen, have consistently highlighted interesting, provocative artists.
405 W. Franklin St.
H&H is one of Baltimore's many once underground yet increasingly-not-so art venues. This former downtown warehouse lacks signage indicating what an art mecca it can be, but locals know. Find your way inside and you'll encounter a lurching graffiti-scrawled elevator that leads to some of the best galleries in town.
Load of Fun
120 W. North Ave., loadoffun.net
Located across North Avenue from Joe Squared, Load of Fun is one of the hubs of the Station North art scene. In addition to providing studios for a wide variety of artists, the LOF runs a gallery and a theater (we liked it so much, we awarded it "Best New Theater" in 2009), while also hosting a number of funkier, indescribable events.
Maryland Art Place
8 Market Place, Suite 100, (410) 962-8565, mdartplace.org
This nonprofit gallery has been around for more than 30 years, and though it resides in an unlikely spot-the bumpin' bar scene of Power Plant Live-it continues to put on engaging contemporary art shows, including an annual exhibition by an aspiring, newbie curator.
Maryland Institute College of Art
1300 W. Mount Royal Ave., (410) 669-9200, mica.edu
MICA is more than an art school; it is in many ways the creative heart of the city. Exhibitions throughout the year tend to be top-notch, and the school's reputation is such that it frequently draws world-renowned artists as speakers.
School 33 Art Center
1427 Light St., (443) 263-4350, school33.org
The venerable School 33 hosts art classes and special events, as well as a rotating series of carefully curated contemporary art exhibitions. A gem.
Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre
817 St. Paul St., (410) 752-1225, spotlighters.org
Spotlighters is 50 years old and still churning out classics and musicals in its charming theater-in-the-round.
700 N. Calvert St., (410) 332-0033, centerstage.org
Center Stage is the touchstone for theater in Baltimore, and with its energetic new artistic director, it appears to be taking some exciting chances. Productions this season are centered around the theme of conversation, and include a Stephen Thorne play about Edgar Allan Poe and a play by artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah himself.
315 W. Fayette St., (410) 752-2208, everymantheatre.org
Everyman's productions are consistently stunning, and with its brand new regal space-a former vaudeville venue around the corner from the Hippodrome, which hosts traveling shows-it will be able to bring them to a larger audience.
Fells Point Corner Theatre
251 S. Ann St., (410) 276-7837, fpct.org
FPCT may be a community theater but its productions are ambitious and frequently stellar (like last season's The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill, a feat for any company).
Glass Mind Theatre
120 W. North Ave., glassmindtheatre.com
A company in residence at Load of Fun, Glass Mind is embarking on its third season. Glass Mind has a yen for the experimental, typified by the annual Brainstorm Festival, in which audiences participate in creating new plays.
Single Carrot Theatre
120 W. North Ave., (443) 844-9253, singlecarrot.com
Single Carrot's founders chose to bring the company to Baltimore because of the city's welcoming arts scene, and they have thrived. The company members may be young, but their productions are ambitious. Not afraid to rock the boat.
1823 N. Charles St., (443) 874-4917, strandtheatercompany.org
The Strand Theater, founded in 2008, focuses on works written by women. The upcoming season will be the theater's first under artistic director Rain Pryor, Richard Pryor's daughter and a comedian in her own right.
45 W. Preston St., (410) 752-8558, theatreproject.org
Theatre Project, an intimate avant-garde theater that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, was originally formed as a free performance space, playing host to companies producing everything from dance to spoken word to puppetry. Shows are no longer free, but the productions remain as edgy and engaging as ever.
806 S. Broadway, (410) 563-9135, vagabondplayers.org
Vagabond is the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country, and its strong productions of classic plays help explain why.