The New York art dream is dead. Living in New York is more expensive than ever, and the prospect of working enough hours to pay rent, purchase supplies, and still have time to produce work is tough without some kind of benefactor. Don't move there. Don't even try. Support the scene here and put your creative energy into it. And if you must engage New York's art scene, do what so many artists have been doing: Stay in Baltimore and continue to also market your work in other major nearby cities. Take the bus up to New York and hawk your wares, sleep on friends' couches, and then get back out of that garbage city. Use New York as a cash infusion if you can (because it's not easy to sell work there, either), but make sure your energy feeds your home base, too. The last couple of years here have seen a number of galleries and artists moving out of New York and Washington, D.C. and into Baltimore (RandallScottProjects, Freddy Gallery, and XOL Gallery, to name a few), in part for the cheaper rent but also because even if Baltimore doesn't spend much money on art, it still cares about interesting art.
This city has been referred to as a “motivational sinkhole” by ex-City Paper writer Tim Kreider who escaped to navigate the late-capitalistic hellhole of New York City, but in reality, it takes great ambition to be an artist in Baltimore. The ambition is not only to produce great and important work, but to help shape the city's self-image, to participate in the decision of what's really important in a city that is playing a significant role in the second civil rights movement. And you're doing all of that while working a few crappy jobs probably. Still, the same lack of wealth redistribution in New York is here in miniature, which is infuriating because we have what we need. Maryland is the wealthiest state in the nation, and can afford the resources artists need to create. Baltimore is home to two of the most historically significant art collections in the world: the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum collection. Baltimore is passionate—the world now recognizes that. This is a city for the arts but the influence and funding of the arts needs to be democratized. That's a much better goal for artists to put their energies toward than pandering to New York tastes.
Or, OK, here's the positive spin on that: Baltimore artists benefit from greater autonomy and freedom here than in other market-driven cities because, with a few exceptions, very few people are buying art here. So the demand for art objects—paintings, sculptures, photographs—in order to sell them to collectors isn't so high. “With such a good concentration of artist run spaces that are not commercially dependent, installation and conceptually based work has a better chance of being shown,” says Randall Scott of RandallScottProjects via email. “It helps create a healthy scene. When you get to NY, the artworks produced are much more object-driven, as the commercial gallery culture is more vibrant and demanding.” It's easier to sell an object than an installation or even a mere concept, manifested through ephemeral media such as performance art. If Baltimore artists recognize that they are unlikely to sell their work even if they conform to a profitable form of art, they have more room to experiment. The fringe aspect of the actual exhibition spaces breeds innovation in alternative spaces such as warehouses or people's living rooms. In the dark group installation “A Night of Satie” at the (now-closed) Lil' Gallery last year, we were immersed in this twisted-kid-fort full of dripping candles, vape smoke, dildos, cam girls, and Hello Kitty while some of Erik Satie's compositions played in the background. It was strange, melancholic, and hard to pin down, and it stuck with us. You couldn't take that experience home and put in on the wall or on your table—and that's what made it so important.
Baltimore's art economy has very little to do with money. For most local artists, success in the field is measured by exposure: where an artist is exhibiting, how often they are exhibiting, what other artists they're showing with, what blogs are covering them, and so on. Even artists who exhibit their work regularly must sustain themselves by other means because being an artist, even a successful one, follows the economic blueprint of the rest of the country: people constantly scrapping and piling job on top of job to get by—unless you're one of those 11 really famous art dudes like Koons or Hirst. But Baltimore has only a handful of DIY or artist-run exhibition spaces and even fewer commercial galleries, so the opportunities for exposure are relatively few and far between as well. Meanwhile, arts coverage is limited to The Baltimore Sun, whose writing on the arts is for the most part atrocious, and smaller niche publications like BmoreArt and City Paper whose beat is relatively limited. So the game is hoping that farther-reaching publications such as Hyperallergic pick up on some show or local artist, or that CP contributor Michael Farley mentions them in ArtFCity.
In theory, exposure leads to sales—to make art not just a vocation, but a profession. This doesn't work in practice for most, though that's not to say that it's entirely impossible to sell art. “Collectors and other art lovers in Baltimore and the DC area buy artwork which they find to be more affordable in Baltimore compared to art in the DMV area,” writes Salameh Nematt, XOL Gallery's founder and curator, via email. “The market here is evidently small and limited compared to bigger cities like NY or Chicago, but the market exists. Our gallery has a mix of buyers from Baltimore and the region and I must point out that online marketing has helped expose the work of artists we represent and brought traffic from areas relatively far from Baltimore.”
A few large institutions such as MICA, the Baltimore Office for Promotion and the Arts, and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, because of their connections, size, and funding opportunities, amplify the artistic values of the city the most. Of those institutions, MICA has the most direct influence on the large swath of young, malleable artists. MICA's professors are typically those who have achieved a certain level of success in their work, and are occasionally pulled from New York and other powerful art centers and institutions. So you have New York-bred artists, who are for the most part operating from experience in an earlier, different economic reality, coming to Baltimore and teaching their students that Baltimore is just a stepping stone into a bigger pool of opportunity. And because the art that's garnered much acclaim in New York has become increasingly homogenous—the result of the extremely wealthy class' hold on the art market—MICA pushes that homogeneity into the standards for the kind of work that is celebrated (and funded) in Baltimore.
Although the most recent Sondheim exhibition was fairly diverse, almost all of the finalists had ties to MICA. It supports the idea that, especially for “outsiders” to the scene (so everybody but a couple hundred people), art awards are reserved for those who can afford an art education, especially a MICA education (MICA's tuition is currently $42,280 per year). As Ben Davis explains in his essay ‘9.5 Theses on Art and Class,' the art world is not separate from the class issues that divide us in “the real world,” and in fact the term “the art world” creates an illusion that we're all in this together, that those of us who are interested in art are all leveled on the playing field by a simple interest that we share. But buying art and even making it are viewed by many as a luxury—because it is horribly expensive to be trained in art, and often those who receive the scholarships and awards are those who have been afforded the time to practice.
Most museums have a lot more to consider in terms of operations and upholding “prestige” than artist-run spaces or commercial galleries do, but these big museums—here, namely the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum—still need to rethink their role. They could take some tips from The Contemporary. Recently, in an article about changes to the Baker Artist Awards, The Sun didn't seem to know what to call The Contemporary when they quoted its director, Deana Haggag, so they awkwardly went with calling it “the Baltimore arts presenting organization The Contemporary,” as if they couldn't just call it a museum because it lacks a physical location. When The Sun doesn't even know what the hell to call the thing you're doing, you're probably doing it right. And The Contemporary's free public lectures, with a range of guests including LaToya Ruby Frazier, Andrew W.K., and Jerry Saltz; studio visits for Baltimore artists; and Grit Fund grants demonstrate the museum's mission to work with the artists who are here and strengthen them. Our other big, free art institutions, the Walters and the BMA, are trying different things to enliven their collections, but their events and projects are generally safer and take fewer risks. There are more ways institutions can reinvent. Institutions can consider their privilege, power, and ability to foster in us a different perspective, and can offer a more interrogative and active exploration of the collections. Why are there so few artists of color on display? Why are all these dudes painting and sculpting nude women? Why are there mostly only portraits of white people? Renoir sucks; why did people like him so much? Why is artwork by people of color often judged, appreciated, and exhibited in totally separate spheres? A more robust and critical engagement with the general public, rather than just the regular art crowd, will benefit everybody.
Baltimore has garnered national attention for its DIY art scene in Station North, and deservedly so, though this has also had the effect of in many ways smoothing out and softening the scene and preemptively thrusting it into the spotlight when it is still a scene that is mostly white, male, and MICA-affiliated and hardly represents Baltimore as a whole. Artists all over the city who are also making art and organizing shows and events are sidelined. City Paper didn't go and cover or attend Stephen Towns' recent show at Jubilee Arts and we're not the only ones who missed out. And how come Paul Rucker's work didn't really penetrate the circle of core tastemakers until it was shown at BMA when he had an insanely good show at the Creative Alliance last year (CP did review that one, at least)? Artists and groups working within Station North should invite collaboration with artists outside of their bubble. A more diverse and collaborative arts culture breeds stronger, more interesting art, and that's the bottom line—the artwork itself is too often neglected as a consideration in discussions of “creative place-making.”
For many artists working in the realm of studio art, collaboration means riffing on the ideas and images of the people you went to school with or share a studio space with, so community outreach and collaboration in the city are not always no-brainers for artists who are used to becoming recluses in their studio and working among other recluses. There need to be more ways for artists to collaborate with the community and those outside their own studios. These pathways could be as simple as diversified group shows, or programming designed to create artist mentorships and collaboration. Currently, the mayor is working on a way to get all of the designated arts districts to work together more, which could offer more collaboration in the arts community. But then there's a problem, and it's really the city's fault: While the Circulator and the MTA run among each of these three districts, there's much less access for those on the more east and west sides of the city (and of course there's no free Circulator around these areas). That transportation problem perpetuates the segregation between more affluent parts of the city and those in which the city has invested less (also in the White L versus the rest of the city surrounding it), which, as we saw in the uprising, would no longer be tolerated. We should glean influence from the uprising's urgency.
By and large, artist-run spaces in Baltimore are doing cool shit and often they're doing it out of their own tiny, tropical-print pockets, putting in hard work to show challenging or heady or fun or obtuse contemporary art that the whole city can be a part of and enjoy. Because they're not motivated by sales or by the prestige of an institution (nor are they often funded by these things), they have more freedom to do whatever they want; they are beholden to no one but themselves and their set of tastes. They can put on more experimental and challenging shows, they can take time off to work on other projects or events, to travel to other cities to promote their space. They're good for the artist community and for promoting Baltimore as a place with interesting, challenging work, and presenting work in these spaces, especially for emerging artists, feels accessible and attainable: “They did it, so can I.”
But then there's this thing where, because they're all running around putting shows together and doing their day jobs and making their own art, too, sometimes no one shows up during gallery hours. Or they don't respond to emails. Or they forget to update their websites about their upcoming shows or send out press releases or Facebook events. Or they put fliers only in a few places in Station North, or inside the Copycat and the H&H Building. And then a lot of what they do is spread by word of mouth, which isn't inherently bad; it's in the nature of the DIY scene. But the DIY scene isn't very diverse, and so some of political implications of DIY are lost. Twenty of your mostly white friends making art for one another feels like the status quo in miniature, not an inspiring counter to the mainstream. Try a little harder to include everybody. Exclusivity and being “underground,” especially in Baltimore, have very serious ramifications.
A 34,000-square-foot warehouse “makerspace” on Greenmount called Open Works is set to open next fall. It'll have a computer lab with various drafting and creative software, wood and metal shops, and 3-D printers, as well as cheap studio space, and it seems like a good resource for artists and makers, similar to the nearby Station North Tool Library but with more of a tech edge. An article about it in Technical.ly, however, highlights a disconnect between some of Baltimore's bigger issues and what the arts can do to fix it and brings into question if they even understand what those issues are. Writer Jason Tashea says that Mac Maclure of BARCO, the nonprofit helping to develop it, hopes that the “youth will be able to come into the building and take advantage of their unique programming, instead of throwing rocks.” Which is, at best, a misguided leap in logic on behalf of the developers.
See, too often, big ideas are pushed through because the people behind them haphazardly frame their ideas around fixing the city's problems when it probably doesn't even address those problems or even the people most affected by those problems. We're skeptical that those youths will want to drop $125 for access to these workshops. Or that it'll heal all of the wounds. It's the same way it seems as though the city thinks murals have magical powers that can solve long-term problems tied to an apartheid city or the way that Light City is framed as an uplifting event that the city needs. Things just showing up in the city are not good for the city just because the people who organized the events and spaces say so. If Open Works is going to come into the area—and if others like it pop up, too—we hope to see a serious, concerted effort at reaching out and working with the people who've been living in the neighborhood for years.
In the last year, we've seen a lot more frank conversations in Baltimore, particularly in the art scene, about equity of opportunity and funding. After the Art-Part'heid discussion in February, a Facebook group was created to continue the conversation, on which people post calls for entry or grant opportunities or links to their shows. And during the uprising we saw an “Artivist” march that began in Sandtown and came down to the Spin Cycle Laundromat for “Love on the Line,” a pop-up by Melani Douglass' Family Arts Museum with about half a dozen performers. That day was all about working together and being together and experiencing some beautiful shit together—the experience was the art. It seems that Baltimore comes together when something lights a fire under our asses, but long-term collaborative stuff, at least in the visual arts, seems harder to nail down. There's pressure all around for artists and organizations to work more collaboratively and to share resources, to examine the ways we can use art to build genuine relationships with each other. And especially in light of the uprising, we need to kill apathy. It's crucial for artists and institutions to examine their own power and privilege, and to figure out ways to use that power responsibly. It's idealistic to think that art can change the world on a grand scale, but art reflects the times, and it should shift our perspectives. Nothing should stay the same following the uprising because it's clear that what we've been doing wasn't working. Let's take the same perspective to the art we make and how we expose people to that art. We need to break down barriers, make people feel welcome, and break down the idea that art is only for the ruling class who can afford it or those who “get it.”