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For Baltimore arts groups, 2018 was a year of transition

Borrowing a page from Baltimore’s big-time professional sports teams, for which the past year proved a time for major changes (the Ravens in the form of a new young quarterback, the Orioles in the form of just about everything), the local arts scene settled on 2018 as a year of transition.

From new leaders to new venues, from new names for old favorites to revivals looking to recapture past glories, many Baltimore-area artists and arts groups used the year to take stock. Some decided to move on; others decided to re-invent themselves. The result is an arts scene determined to hold onto what it has, yet not afraid to try new things in the name of expanding its audience.

Whether it was new vigor at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, baton-passing at the Maryland Film Festival or a final, Kevin Spacey-less season of the filmed-in-Baltimore Netflix series “House of Cards” (a final season that perhaps defied the odds by its very existence), change was in the air in 2018.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights of that redrawn road map of the local arts scene, along with selected other landmarks from the past year.

Old faces, new challenges

When it came to artistic challenges, few were bigger than those faced by the folks responsible for “House of Cards.” A sixth season of the Netflix drama had already been planned when, in November 2017, Spacey was fired after sexual-abuse charges were leveled against him. Officials from Netflix and Media Rights Capital, which produces the show, opted to continue, shifting the show’s primary focus from Spacey’s character, disgraced (and resigned) U.S. President Frank Underwood, to former first Lady and new President Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright.

The final season became available Nov. 2. Frank was dead and buried, Claire was the subject of all sorts of Machiavellian manipulations (and orchestrating a few of her own) and amoral flunky supreme Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) was…

Well, for those who have yet to binge-watch all eight episodes, we don’t want to ruin the surprise (and you will be surprised). But for a series that seemed all but dead just over a year ago, “House of Cards” proved surprisingly resilient.

Other new challenges taken on in 2018 included January’s opening of a Mini Hip-Hop Museum in downtown’s S.A.N.D. art gallery; Baltimore’s hidden gem, the Maryland Museum of Military History at the Fifth Regiment Armory, named a room and opened an exhibit in honor of Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor winner Augustus Walley in February; in April, Howard County native Alicia Graf Mack, a contemporary dancer and a former Alvin Ailey dancer, was named the director of the Juilliard Dance Division; Baltimore native Ego Nwodim was added to the cast of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” for its 44th season; Baltimore Sun alum and “The Wire” creator David Simon kept up a feud with Twitter over what he was allowed to put out to his followers (he was even suspended for a while).

Also: the Chinatown Collective held its first Charm City Night Market in September, to focus attention on Baltimore’s Historic Chinatown and its enduring legacy; Columbia’s Angie “Rockstar” Lantry made it onto CBS’s “Big Brother,” getting evicted in week 7 (but she got engaged in October, which doubtless picked up her spirits); University of Maryland alum Natasha Rothwell, already busy with the HBO series “Insecure,” is writing her own HBO special and her first feature film, a comedy called “Bridal Recall” (she’ll be appearing in 2020’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” as well); Annapolis-born clothing designer Christian Siriano was named a judge for next year's season 17 of “Project Runway” on Bravo; a certain unrepentant bad boy was the subject of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “John Waters: Indecent Exposure” exhibit, which opened in October as the first retrospective of his visual art to be held in his hometown.

And the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts manufactured a challenge for itself, announcing plans to move two annual festivals, April’s Light City and September’s Baltimore Book Festival, to November in 2019. The weather, officials said, is usually better in November than April, and book publishers are willing to expend more energy promoting their products the closer they get to the holidays.

Changes at the top

Several prominent arts institutions found themselves with new leaders in 2018.

In February, Courtney B. Wilson announced his retirement as executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum, a position he’d held for 17 years. His tenure included leading the museum back from its darkest days, following the February 2003 collapse of its roundhouse roof during a snowstorm. Kris Hoellen, a senior vice president at Baltimore’s National Aquarium, was named as his successor.

In July, Donna Drew Sawyer, an official at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts since 2017 who formerly worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, was named as BOPA’s new executive director. She replaced Bill Gilmore, who had led the office, which produces Artscape, Light City and many other free Baltimore events, for 27 years (and worked there for 37).

In August, Stephanie Ybarra, director of special artistic projects for the Public Theater in New York City, was named executive director of Center Stage. She replaces Kwame Kwei-Armah, who left after seven seasons to become artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theatre.

And in September, Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival and its head since the first festival played The Charles theater in May 1999, announced he would be retiring in November. It was Dietz who championed the MdFF’s acquisition and renovation of the century-old Parkway at Charles Street and North Avenue, now the festival’s permanent home. Dietz’s successor has yet to be named.

One of the year’s most welcome success stories was the continuing revitalization of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, a 13-year-old cultural institution charged with telling the history of Maryland’s vibrant African-American community. After years of not meeting either attendance goals or state-mandated fundraising minimums, executive director Wanda L. Draper, a former reporter and editor for The Evening Sun and director of programming and public affairs for WBAL-TV, took charge of the museum in September 2016. She quickly reduced staff, tightened budgets and began looking for ways to attract more visitors.

“I like where the museum is,” Draper said at the time of her appointment. “I do think there's so much more that can be done, facilities that we can expand on."

Mission on its way to being accomplished. In 2018, for the first time in 10 years and only the second time in its history, the museum met the $2 million fundraising mission it’s been given by the state legislature. Attendance has begun inching up, though it’s still falling short of Draper’s goal of 60,000 visitors annually. And the Lewis has begun concentrating on locally sourced exhibits that can attract visitors without straining the museum’s budget.

“This has been a real turnaround story,” said Drew Hawkins, a member of the museum's board.

The spotlight shines

Our fair city basked in all manner of reflected glory this year, and no one shone a more positive light on Baltimore than painter Amy Sherald, whose portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama debuted to mixed reviews in February at the National Portrait Gallery.

Plenty of people liked it just fine, including art critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote of Obama’s portrait in the Vulture, “She is grand, elegant, gorgeous, but her jackrabbit-quick wit is right there. Set against a monochrome flat powder-blue, the First Lady is a guide star to another kind of glamour, a serious spirit whose sorrows were released, who spread warmth, respect, a sly sense of humor, and protectiveness. And a different idea of female power and beauty.”

Then again, there was New York Times art critic Holland Carter, who sniffed, “To be honest, I was anticipating — hoping for — a bolder, more incisive image of the strong-voiced person I imagine this former first lady to be.”

Just about all reviews, however, took a back seat to a photo posted on Facebook of 2-year-old Parker Curry, standing in front of the portrait with a look on her face that can only be described as awestruck. Within a week, that photo had more than 34,000 shares and 24,000 likes.

Movies, too, helped to shine a light on Baltimore. In March, director Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which was set (though not filmed) in the city, earned the Best Picture Oscar (del Toro said he chose the setting as a tribute to the films of native son Barry Levinson). Getting its local debut at May’s 20th Maryland Film Festival and a national release in October, Marilyn Ness’ documentary “Charm City” watched with compassion as the city’s black residents and its police force tried to understand one another after the death of Freddie Gray. And Michael Kelly, after living here for the six years while “House of Cards” was being filmed, left behind a love letter in the form of the Dundalk-set “All Square,” a story of betting, youth league* baseball and surrogate fathers who may not be up to the task. The movie, which also debuted at the Maryland Film Festival, became available on demand in October.

Promising newcomers

Ellicott City’s Lindsey Jordan, only 18, seemed destined for stardom with the release in June of her band Snail Mail’s debut album, “Lush.” Shortly after playing to enthusiastic audiences during a tour of Europe, she told the Baltimore Sun’s Welsey Case, “I couldn't believe that [the shows] were selling out and stuff. It was just weird, but really cool.”

Pop group JAGMAC, composed of Baltimore siblings Jared, Angelique, Gabriel, Manjo, Alyssa and CJ Patalinghug, was named Radio Disney’s “Next Big Thing” in April. The group released its debut EP, "Right Back With You," in September.

Dundalk teenager Richie Merritt went from being a student at Dundalk High to co-starring with Matthew McConaughey in “White Boy Rick,” which showed up in theaters in September.

Screenwriter and Baltimore native Sofia Alvarez’s first film, Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” became available in August and proved an instant hit, with women and girls forming fan clubs for heartthrob character Peter Kavinsky (played by Noah Centineo). Among those proudest of her success: Baltimore Sun alum Rafael Alvarez, her dad.

Two new festivals made their Baltimore debuts this year: The International Edgar Allan Poe Festival in October and the Festival of Jewish Literature in November. In June, the Walters Art Museum reopened its 19th-century Hackerman House mansion as 1 West Mount Vernon Place. And in November, the third AlienCon, but first on the East Coast, touched down at the convention center.

We mention one more promising newcomer, but not without shedding a tear. “Float Plan,” a years-in-the-making first novel from former Baltimore Sun reporter Rob Hiaasen, was published in September by Loyola University Maryland’s Apprentice House Press. Hiaasen was one of the five people gunned down at the offices of our sister publications, the Capital-Gazette newspapers, in June. He was a good friend to many here at The Sun, and while we continue to miss him daily, we smile knowing how happy he’d be to see the positive reception his book has been getting.

Controversies

Not all was smooth sailing this year. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra found itself entangled in a pair of disputes still hanging over it. In November, players — who had been working without a contract since September — and management announced a four-month extension of the existing collective bargaining agreement. That came as management called for reducing the BSO’s operating schedule from 52 weeks to 40. Players countered that would not only reduce their pay (which is part of the idea), but also tarnish the BSO’s reputation as a world-class orchestra.

Also in November, the BSO suspended concertmaster Jonathan Carney for “behaving in an unprofessional manner and exercising poor judgment.” That action came after principal oboist Katherine Needleman filed a complaint against the orchestra with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission related to sexual harassment allegations involving Carney, and after revelations that he allegedly threatened an employee of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra.

In March, Iron Crow Theatre shut down a planned production of “Corpus Christi” amid allegations of sexual harassment against its artistic director, Sean Elias. He remains with the company, which said that its investigation showed that specific allegations of sexual harassment "did not occur” and that it has “full confidence” in him. Although a planned community dialogue was canceled by the conflict resolution company that was to run it, Iron Crow officials announced they were “expanding its policies on sexual harassment” and had adopted a “formalized standard of professionalism.”

Odds and ends

A feature film based on “12 O’Clock Boys,” Maryland Institute College of Art alum Lotfy Nathan’s 2013 documentary on Baltimore’s streetwise dirt bike riders, began filming in the city in October. Executive produced by Will Smith and co-written by Barry Jenkins (writer-director of Oscar winner “Moonlight”), the film, alternately referred to as “12 O’Clock Boys” or “Charm City,” has a cast that includes rapper Meek Mill, Jahi Di'Allo Winston (“Proud Mary,” Netflix’s “Everything Sucks”), Teyonah Parris and Will Catlett.

Little Italy’s beloved outdoor film festival took a year off, after being forced to move from its traditional location at High and Stiles streets. Organizers have pledged to bring it back next year.

The Baltimore Museum of Art raised some eyebrows when it auctioned off works from Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and others to buy works from contemporary female artists and artists of color. The sale raised nearly $8 million, and among works purchased in June was “Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between,” the first painting Baltimore-based Amy Sherald made after she did her official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama.

A mural featuring Divine, the drag queen icon and frequent collaborator with John Waters, went up in Midtown-Belvedere on an alley-facing wall of Preston Street. Its fate looked to be in jeopardy, after it was discovered that the necessary permission had not been obtained from the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP). But at a hearing in November, cooler heads prevailed and the mural was approved retroactively.

Organizers of Brony Con, an annual celebration of “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” announced that next year’s convention, set for Aug. 1-4 at the convention center, will be the last.

In August, teenager Dara Renee, who lived in Baltimore until about four years ago and attended John Paul Regional Catholic School, made her Disney Channel debut in a remake of “Freaky Friday.”

And in June, we said good-bye to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, which ended its 12-year-run at the old Camden Railroad Station. But happily, it’s only moving about 40 miles south, since much of owner Steve Geppi’s awe-inspiring collection of comic books, movie posters and other pop-culture memorabilia is now housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the baseball teams depicted in the movie “All Square.” The teams are not affiliated with Little League baseball.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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