Rethinking the Baltimore art scene for 2012

In the past 12 months, some especially high-energy creators have relocated from other metropolises and set up shop within city limits. While a scrappy inventiveness isn't new here — far from it — it could be that the city is reaching a critical mass of innovative thinkers in the arts.

Baltimore may be on the verge of a growth spurt that will establish it once and for all as an arts center. It may be about to become a laboratory for experiments that blur the lines between theater, music and dance and the rest of life.

As Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah puts it: "I've never lived in a city before where every single arts leader whom I've met has a social objective and is trying to transform the community."

Four of these leaders — Kwei-Armah, MacArthur Award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan — recently got together to brainstorm ideas on how to take the arts to the next level in Baltimore.

All have established records of thinking outside the box, and two have won MacArthur "genius" awards: Alsop launched OrchKids, which uses music lessons to teach self-discipline and other life skills to low-income youths; Lerman is known for incorporating nursing home residents and other nontraditional performers into her dances.

Vikan has established pioneering collaborations with brain scientists and was instrumental in founding a school in Iraq to train that nation's curators. And Kwei-Armah is a polymath who has succeeded in his native Britain as an actor, playwright and newspaper columnist.

Here are some of their ideas:

Power to the people

Vikan keeps mulling over the Occupy Baltimore protests, in which demonstrators took over McKeldin Square near the Inner Harbor for more than two months before being ousted by authorities on Dec. 13.

There's something about the movement that was simultaneously both retro and forward-thinking, he says, about the notion of ordinary people attempting to seize control through nonviolent protests. He thinks something similar may be happening in the arts.

"Perhaps our role isn't to be the authority," Vikan says. "Perhaps it's to be a broker."

Traditionally, big institutions like the Walters have functioned as gatekeepers who decide whether a work will be admitted into the canon of great art.

Traditionally, there's been only one standard: artistic excellence. But perhaps there are other, equally valid yardsticks.

"There's a new acknowledgment of the audience as experts," Alsop says. "We used to treat them as the herd."

When the BSO puts on its "rusty musicians" concerts, in which amateurs join professional violinists and trumpet players on stage, Alsop has to remind her players that the goal shouldn't be achieving musical perfection.

"I tell them to suspend their usual methods of measuring," she says. "Instead, one has to judge by the quality of the experience. As artists, that's not something we're accustomed to doing."

This summer, the Walters will put on an exhibit called "Public Property" in which the audience will go on to the museum's website and select a theme for the show and the specific artifacts that will be displayed. (To vote on a theme, go to thewalters.org, scan the museum's online collection of two-dimensional treasures and cast your ballot before Jan. 8.)

"Giving up that sense of ownership is kind of fun," Vikan says.

Building community, excitement

Every time Kwei-Armah's 6-year-old son heads off to school on a Friday, his dad wonders how to get youngsters as enthusiastic about the arts as they are about the Baltimore Ravens.

"Ravens Fridays blow my mind," Kwei-Armah says. "Within four months of being in this country, he's looking forward to going to school every Friday so he can wear Ravens colors. I don't know of any other institution in England that has worked its way so deeply into the culture that it's become part of the educational system. That is a template of what nonbusiness entertainment activities can have a measurable impact on our environment."

Everyone in the arts wants to engage young people — not just children and teens, but also adults in their 20s and 30s — but no one knows how.

"I just came off teaching a semester at Harvard, and I found that my students were coming to the arts belatedly," Lerman says. "They're great at linking, but they don't know how to connect."

Kwei-Armah and Alsop are tethered to their electronic tablets, so they understand the fascination with texting, tweeting and other forms of social networking. But they say that virtual communication isn't enough.

"We need human contact," Alsop says. "We need to gather."

Perhaps, Lerman speculates, institutions can develop new audiences by shaking things up in small ways. Include a beer in the price of admission. Open the museum at midnight.

"We should start by breaking simple rules," Lerman says. "Then we can break one that's a little more difficult. We'll just keep going until we break a whole series, until we get to the really hard ones, like race and class."

Kwei-Armah has begun putting that philosophy into practice at Center Stage. He has built a platform in the lobby where students from the Baltimore School for the Arts perform on Friday nights. In 2012, he'll convert one of Center Stage's refreshment centers into a 50-seat theater for new and cutting-edge work.

"A lot of companies say they want their theaters to be full at 8 p.m," he says. "I want there to be just as much activity going on inside our lobbies."

Embracing quirkiness

Baltimore is a place where an offbeat, eccentric vibe is practically written into the city charter. And that's an attitude with potentially big benefits for artists.

"I don't think normative behavior is well understood here," Vikan says. "There's very little power elite, and what there was has kind of evaporated in the 27 years that I've lived here. So if you're in the arts, you can do any damn thing you want. I can tell you that's not characteristic for fine-arts museums throughout this country."

It may not even be true in the nation's capital, according to Lerman. She operated her own company, The Dance Exchange, for 35 years in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park. This past summer, she stepped away from her troupe and moved to Baltimore.

"When I was in Washington, I felt like I was fighting the wrong battles," Lerman says. "Artists there have to pay attention to a certain slickness. To this day, when we use older performers or disabled performers, it's looked down upon by the dance community because it's not pure art.

"In Baltimore, that's not even on the table. The discussion is all about how we can make our best art, serve our communities and make our cities better."

For instance, the Baltimore Symphony will co-sponsor a three-day Women of the World Festival from March 2-4 that will contain some arts performances — and a lot of programs addressing women's issues.

"We've already had think-ins in which 400 to 500 women from the community talked about whatever was on their minds," Alsop says. "They're concerned about poverty, health issues, politics — the spectrum."

WOW will include panels and workshops, a marketplace for female-owned businesses and speed mentoring, in which participants can sign up for 15 minutes with four advisers.

"When you talk about 'the arts', people's minds go someplace quite narrow," Alsop says. "But in Baltimore, arts forms that traditionally have been segmented and specialized are being used as vehicles into the larger society. In this city, we're all holding hands and humming 'Kumbayah.'"