Baltimore Clayworks to reopen with new board, old debt

Two months after a cash-starved, debt-plagued Baltimore Clayworks shut its doors and appeared headed for bankruptcy and liquidation, the 37-year-old ceramics center has a new lease on life.

On Wednesday, a freshly installed board of trustees announced that an agreement for continuation was signed last week with the previous Clayworks board, which resigned Tuesday. The previous board had voted to close the ceramic arts center and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July.


"This is what everyone was hoping for," said Marsha Smelkinson, an organizer of the Clayworks Community Campaign that has been trying for eight months to keep the ceramic arts center going. "It was a long journey, and we never knew what the outcome was going to be. But community members and our steering committee never lost their belief that we had a way to save this organization and reopen it."

Clayworks has closed — opening only for the weekend to allow students, teachers and resident artists to clear out their belongings.

The new board plans to have at least one of the two Mount Washington buildings that constitute the ceramics art center up and running again in October.

Those buildings had been put up for sale early in the year as a means of paying off about $1 million in debt and funding a relocation to a Baltimore arts district. The Clayworks Community Campaign sprang up to oppose that plan and propose alternative scenarios to keep Clayworks in Mount Washington.

The Clayworks board entered a deal to sell the properties to another nonprofit for $3.7 million. But after the real estate deal collapsed in July, the board voted to shut the doors and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would lead to liquidation. Artists, teachers and students were given a limited time to retrieve their work.

Baltimore Clayworks, the decades' old ceramic arts center in Mount Washington, to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7.

When the board did not immediately proceed with filing bankruptcy papers, the Community Campaign continued seeking an arrangement to save the institution.

"But both parties decided they couldn't resolve this by further discussion with each other, so we turned it over to attorneys," said Smelkinson, a member of the new Clayworks board. "During the period of August and September, our group started assembling volunteers just to be ready if we achieved the continuation."

Achieving that deal means that the new board has its work cut out for it — as it assumes the organization's debt.

"Our donors have contributed $350,000, and we've already written $150,000 in checks that were delivered yesterday to creditors," Smelkinson said. "We have one bank loan of $50,000 due to be paid Dec. 31. The largest amount we owe is a note for approximately $650,000 due in August 2018."


Susan Vernon, a member of the former Clayworks board, said she was pleased with the outcome.

"Baltimore Clayworks is a wonderful organization that does a lot of good for a lot of people," Vernon said. "I'm so glad it is getting a second chance."

The new board will hold its first official meeting next week, when it will begin financial planning and start the process for hiring an executive director. Two Clayworks staffers laid off in July will be re-hired to help with the reopening of the facilities, Smelikson said. (The center previously had about a dozen full- and part-time employees.) A community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 11 in the Parish Hall at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

The Studio Building, housing artists studios and classrooms, will reopen "sometime in October," Smelikson said. She is hopeful that some classes will resume during November and December.

To regain firm financial footing may still required the sale of one of the Clayworks buildings, most likely the Gallery located across form the Studio. It will be one of the options "investigated by the board," said Smelkinson.