DIY spaces are fertile grounds for Baltimore's arts, music scenes

Nolen Strals (left), singer for the Baltimore punk trio Double Dagger, performs at the Charm City Art Space.
Nolen Strals (left), singer for the Baltimore punk trio Double Dagger, performs at the Charm City Art Space. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun photo)

Part of the charm of Baltimore's arts scene is that someone is always hitting the "refresh" button.

An art gallery or music club shuts down on one block, only to have another pop up a few streets over. Abandoned or underused venues might suddenly sprout a theater troupe one day, an artists' collective the next.

A lot of the refreshing can be traced to a thriving DIY culture in town, a culture that has been responsible for some of the most intriguing new enterprises over the years and that helps give the city its reputation as a place where artists of every genre can find — or create — an outlet.

Among the ventures that are adding character to the scene are places that provide outlets to more than one genre. Here's a look at just a few of these spots, where cool things happen — or will happen soon.

Charm City Art Space

In what was once the garage of a narrow townhouse on Maryland Avenue, Charm City Art Space celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. That's a significant milestone for a nonprofit spot where the punkiest of punk bands can perform before packed crowds that can also take a look at art hanging on the walls in between the head-banging.

A Maryland flag over the door and large-scale murals on the walls (a recently painted one promotes marriage equality) provide some color to this otherwise utilitarian space co-founded by Mike Wolf.

"We're loosely organized," Wolf said. "A lot of people filter in and keep it happening. It is a sociology project in a sense. The idea is 'Don't be a jerk to one another.' The space is wholly run off of donations. We just make enough to pay our rent."

Added Jesse Morgan: "No one is looking to make a profit off of this. Everyone has pulled money out of their own pocket to make sure the BGE bill is paid."

The space survives on memberships — $30 a year — and volunteers to staff the shows.

Membership comes with event-booking privileges, a perk that helped attract Melanie Losover, who started attending shows at Charm City Art Space about six years ago while still in high school. A member since 2009, she started booking musicians she felt were not getting enough exposure in town.

"It's easier here for people of all ages and backgrounds to do what they want," Losover said. "You can put on bands or art shows. And the art is usually on the walls for two months, so a lot of people will see it."

For those interested in displaying their art in the venue — a fair amount of the wall space is left free for exhibits — the process couldn't be simpler.

"Usually, you have to prove yourself to a gallery, which then takes a ridiculous cut," Wolf said. "Here, we're like, 'You want to have an art show? Cool.' Just ask. Email us. And a very small percentage [of art sales] goes to us."

The space has also been used for film screenings and comedy acts. But music is the primary draw, even though the venue has a rule that might seem antithetical — no drugs, no alcohol.

"Those of us in the punk scene saw that's what killed a lot of places," said Rob Sullivan, a punk band musician, successful cage fighter and active member of the Charm City Art Space. "We've never had any issues with the police."

Harvest and Pleasant Living are scheduled to perform during a show that begins at 7 p.m. Friday; Citizen, Here and Now, Invitational and Class Picture are on a lineup that begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Charm City Art Space is at 1731 Maryland Ave. Go to ccspace.org.


On a typically undernourished block of Greenmount Avenue sits an old building with a lot of new stuff happening inside. This venue for artists and artisans was founded by a couple of Maryland Institute College of Art grads, Ben Graham-Putter and Adam Farkas, who named the place BrickHaus — inspired by listening to the Commodores' 1970s hit "Brick House."

"Ben found the building through Craigslist," Farkas said. "When we saw it, it seemed blatantly apparent that we needed to claim it and turn it into an arts space."

A year and a half into an eight-year lease, the co-founders have made good on their vision. Bit by bit, walls have gone up to create artist studios — but not doors. "There is quite literally an open-door policy here," Farkas said. "Some artists are not comfortable with that."

The building, which housed an A&P grocery store in 1910, has been the site of about a dozen art exhibits over the past year. There is also a much-used performance space for music, lectures and more. And Bearings Bike Project, which calls itself "a women, transgender, and queer-run bicycle collective," is active on the first floor, offering sessions on bicycle repair and maintenance.

Much more is planned in the two-story structure, with its 15,000 square feet of space (heated, more or less, by three wood-burning stoves). A big project under way is the construction of a darkroom where the photography-minded can rediscover the original, pre-digital art form.

"VisArts in Rockville donated a whole lot of darkroom and other equipment — I'd guess between $40,000 and $60,000 worth," said Graham-Putter, who lives at BrickHaus and serves as director. "There are enough cameras to teach a class of 12. We hope to have the darkroom running in January."

Woodworking classes may start by the end of December. A metal shop is in the works for the basement. "Workshops will be our bread and butter," Graham-Putter said.

The intimate upstairs performance space, where a sofa is emblazoned with the world "revolution," has been used by a variety of musicians. More are likely to be drawn to the place when a recording studio is added to the features at BrickHaus.

"We want to reach out to Peabody and MICA students who are looking to record," Graham-Putter said.

Fundraising is always a challenge, but the co-founders sound upbeat about the future.

"We both spent our life savings on this," Farkas said. "It has definitely been a struggle, especially at the end of the first year as our savings dried up. But if you want something to happen, you have to be willing to do whatever needs to be done."

Bobby Lee and the Sympathizers present a 'Holiday Hoedown' at 9 p.m. Friday. Bearings Bike Project presents "A Crafty Winter Festival" on Saturday with a DIY craft fair from noon to 6 p.m., bonfires and live music by Neutron Bomb and others from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. BrickHaus Art Space is at 2602 Greenmount Ave. Go to brickhaus.org.

New York Fried Chicken

Coming soon to the corner of North Charles Street and North Avenue is a combination theater, gallery and office. When renovations are complete — the target date is late January — the last telltale whiffs left over from the previous occupant, New York Fried Chicken, should have dissipated.

You could say the venue is going from grease to greasepaint. Out front, in a room that will seat 30 to 50, the Baltimore Annex Theater will offer several productions each season.

In between plays, art exhibits will be held; the first two, featuring graduate students from MICA, are planned for early spring. (A kind of leftover artwork will always be in the space — the original wall-length menu promoting "Lake Trout Fish," "Burgers in Bun" and, of course, chicken.)

In the back, where a walk-in freezer is now being dismantled, will be the two-person office of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., said its executive director, Ben Stone.

"This corner has stalled. The city was OK with us coming in here and leased the space to us at no cost three months ago," Stone said. "We think the total renovation will cost $25,000 to $35,000. We gave ourselves a month to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter and raised it in a week."

The remaining money is expected to be covered by a grant.

A suggestion from Annex Theater supporter Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, led to the imaginative, DIY-ethic troupe teaming up with Station North Arts & Entertainment to make a new home in the former fast-food spot.

"We've been basically in warehouses that are hard to find," said artistic director Evan Moritz, "places that were not always up to code. We wanted to switch gears. This space will give us visibility and allow us to have longer runs."

Meanwhile, the company's staging of "Ubik," an adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick, opens this weekend across the street. If renovations at the chicken place go quickly, the first Annex production in the new space will be "Equus," opening Jan. 31.

By the time the theater company and Station North folks move into their new digs, the issue of a name for the storefront venue should be settled.

"We've been having internal discussions about that," Stone said. "For now, it's still New York Fried Chicken."

The as-yet-unnamed space is at 1 W. North Ave. Go to stationnorth.org. Annex Theater's production of "Ubik" runs this weekend through Dec. 30 at D Space, 16 W. North Ave. Go to baltimoreannextheater.org.


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