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Pandemic may have closed galleries, but pop-up series takes Baltimore artists outside to showcase work

The finale of a pop up art exhibit took place near Charles Theatre on the last Sunday in August features works by artist McKinley Wallace III, a MICA graduate.

In a parking lot near the Charles Theatre, McKinley Wallace speaks about a number of pieces of art he’s showing as part of an outdoor exhibit, explaining how he means to blend the imagery of the Civil Rights Era with modern society as a way to spur conversations about race relations in America.

Organized by The Hot Sauce Artist Collective and the Baltimore Office of the Promotion and the Arts, Wallace’s exhibit is the final of four the groups have been showcasing each Sunday in August.

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Displayed on a series of connected walls, the Artist Pop-Up Exhibitions feature a new artist each week and have featured different themes, ranging from Wallace’s pieces on race relations to the more naturalistic pieces of Liana Ambrose-Murray; the artist known as Ambrose had featured a number of her pieces the previous week.

The event itself was born from the restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring intimate locations and events to be shut down. Attendees are wearing masks. The location was selected because it was outside and has a tightened entranceway rather than being completely open, said Jackie Downs, director of the Arts Council for the Office of Promotion and the Arts.

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“We wanted to have a space that would break away from the interior gallery,” said Alex Amegah, with The Hot Sauce Artist Collective.

Ambrose said the outdoor environment brought some unusual features, such as natural lighting not seen in more enclosed indoor galleries and the wind, which lightly blew through the cloth of one of her pieces.

For the organizers, the event is as much about giving artists a continued space to express themselves as it is for drawing a crowd and promoting their work.

Amegah said the Hot Sauce Artist Collective, a group of Baltimore artists, wanted to break out of the digital realm that has come to dominate the creative space over the past few months.

The pandemic also affects the creative process, he said: Without these sorts of events, artists are “not exposed to the day-to-day inspirations” they enjoyed previously.

For Wallace, he said the lack of proper galleries featuring the artist in person can also take away something from a viewing if the artist can’t offer their own perspective on their pieces.

The pandemic has also put a financial strain on many. The artists who participated in the events all received small stipends from the organization’s Arts Council, spokesman Santiago Nocera said.

Downs said organizers are looking at expanding the exhibits beyond just Station North, with a desire to bring similar exhibits to underserved neighborhoods in hopes of bringing out a wide variety of artists.

She said the group has been in talks with the Black Arts District, a historic section of West Baltimore noted for its arts and entertainment district that officials hope to restore.

“We’re thinking: Let’s do this across the whole city,” Downs said.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and City Council President Brandon Scott, the Democratic nominee for mayor, attended the final event.

Young spoke highly of Wallace’s work itself, talking about how one of his pieces depicting a blighted city neighborhood with a vehicle with a damaged front bumper “looks like I’m looking through a window” in Baltimore.

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He said it and other pieces — which blended imagery and colors of law enforcement, Black empowerment and historical events — were important for children to view so as to grow an appreciation for the arts.

He lamented the lack of families in attendance, noting the hesitance of some to come to an event during the pandemic.

“It’s very important that we come support these artists,” Young said, adding, “I think we need to do these pop-ups all over the city.”

Scott said officials have been in discussion as to how to best facilitate similar events in the city, saying it’s important “to still allow access to that art,” especially pieces like Wallace’s “showcasing the moment we’re living in.”

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