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Le Mondo envisions a new future for Baltimore arts. Critics say it still hasn't reckoned with the past.

Le Mondo envisions a new future for Baltimore arts. Critics say it still hasn't reckoned with the past.
Following Le Mondo's grand opening, some in the arts community remain unconvinced the organization has changed. (Sameer Rao / Baltimore Sun)

In many ways, Le Mondo represents the Baltimore arts world’s grandest aspirations. Its website describes a multipronged “artist-owned performance venue, live/work studio space, and community-focused cafe and bar.”

A list of guiding principles encourages experimental art in various media, giving artists from diverse backgrounds safe spaces and resources, building bridges across demographic groups, “leading with empathy and integrity” and other ideals. Co-founder and executive director Carly J. Bales said that all of these principles build toward a vision she believes the city sorely needs.

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But for some members of Baltimore’s tight-knit arts community, that promise remained sullied as Le Mondo opens. In 2017, several women alleged sexual misconduct by its former executive director and accused the organization of shielding him. Some say Le Mondo’s efforts to address their concerns have not been enough to regain the community’s trust.

Many artists, myself included, feel like large parts of the community are still divided over the situation,” artist Christine Ferrera wrote in an email. Ferrera previously worked with the Baltimore Arts Accountability Coalition to advocate for the alleged victims. “In a small, tight-knit community, an organization such as Le Mondo is a big player, so they have essentially left many artists out in the cold by not dealing with it.”

Le Mondo officials say they have overhauled their board and begun accountability measures.

“As we move into the next phase of the project’s life, we aim to lead by example, continuing to build this young organization toward our principles,” Bales wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

The details are as follows: In 2017, several women submitted confidential statements to Le Mondo’s board accusing former executive director Ric Royer of abuses that included non-consensual sex, breaking into their private spaces, threats of physical violence and professional retaliation. Royer, who denied the allegations, resigned in August 2017.

Royer returned in September, however, as a consultant for real estate group Howard St. Incubator LLC, a development company affiliated with Le Mondo. “We hope to hold this person accountable for their actions, and simultaneously provide an opportunity to rebuild relations within the community,” the board wrote in a statement at the time.

The board wrote another statement saying that Royer was terminated on Nov. 30, 2017, after it “learned he was in communication with a party he had agreed not to communicate with, in a manner that infringed the boundaries we had set in place.” The allegations and handling of them prompted community backlash. Two then-board members, Lydia Pettit and Gianna Rodriguez, resigned.

Bales said that she used the executive transition as an opportunity to “completely overhaul [the] board” in 2018. This new board stated two months ago that its members "recognize the way we handled this process was insufficient in addressing concerns about abuse and accountability." The statement also noted several accountability measures had been established, including “a comprehensive code of conduct and code of ethics, staff and board training, and our ongoing engagement with other local community organizations.”

“I have always envisioned this project as a process that continues to unfold and responsively shape itself to the needs of our communities as they grow and change,” Bales wrote in her e-mail.

These assurances were enough for the Downtown Partnership, which administered a $300,000 state grant from Project C.O.R.E. to Le Mondo. The grant included anti-discrimination clauses that, if violated, could endanger the funds.

Davon Barbour, senior vice president of economic development, said that the Downtown Partnership was ultimately satisfied with how Le Mondo resolved the situation and didn’t pull funds.

But Le Mondo has not yet convinced several people, who worked and publicly aligned themselves with Royer’s alleged victims, that anything has changed. Ferrera, who was involved in an unsuccessful mediation with the accusers, says that this experience left lasting trauma that still affects her and the community.

“I believe the effects have continued to ripple out over the past two years in a way that has hurt many, many artists in Baltimore,” she wrote in an email. “It could take a very long time and a great deal of kindness, empathy, support, and outreach on the part of Le Mondo in order to begin a healing process with the community. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I haven't seen or heard anything from them that would indicate they're interested in doing that. I suppose their Grand Opening [was] for anyone who didn't have to go through what we all went through. I certainly was not invited nor do I feel welcome there.”

Dance and theater artist Ann Tabor told The Sun in 2018 that the only thing that would redeem Le Mondo at that point would be a complete change of leadership. She reiterated in a recent email that the organization hasn’t accounted for lasting harm done.

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“I haven't seen any changes other than the addition of some new board members,” she wrote. “I honestly think this project is too tainted at this point to ever earn the trust of the community, but a good start would be reaching out to the victims directly to apologize, as well as immediately removing Carly Bales. ...”

Bales did not answer an inquiry about whether Le Mondo reached out to victims after Royer’s dismissal. “We value transparency and also the privacy of individuals affected during this conflict,” she wrote in an email.

One of the most direct critiques came from former Le Mondo staffer and Ferrera’s fellow coalition member, Rahne Alexander. She posted a statement to Facebook on Thursday that admonished the organization for its handling of the situation and discouraged others from working with its leadership.

“What I have not seen from Le Mondo is accountability,” she wrote. “There has been no remorse, no apologies to the many Le Mondo has hurt along the way.”

Two years ago I resigned from Le Mondo after spending a year as their development director. By the time I resigned I had...

Posted by Rahne Alexander on Thursday, May 16, 2019

Jeannie Howe, leads the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, which advocates for and supports the area’s arts and culture organizations. She framed this situation in the broader context of increased public attention to survivors’ stories.

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“Now, and for the first time, pushback from victims of sexual and other misconduct is being heard,” she wrote in an email. “It is new, painful, messy, and necessary. And we are strangely fortunate that although this swamp is hard to pass, others will be encouraged and hopefully behaviors will change in the future. We should celebrate this small progress while understanding these are still early days of wrestling with historic injustices. Le Mondo is out front, but not the only organization on this journey.”

Le Mondo’s public messaging leans heavily on tropes of social transformation through art, which appeal to a dream of arts spaces bridging community empowerment and economic revival. Its three buildings on the 400 block of N. Howard St., including the refurbished early-20th-century movie theater that bears Le Mondo’s name, was once part of a bustling commercial district that civic and business leaders hope to revive.

The Downtown Partnership, Abell Foundation and others believed in Le Mondo’s promise enough to grant the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years. So did the hundreds of individual contributors that answered crowdfunding appeals with tens of thousands more dollars.

Their support bore fruit on Friday night, when the space opened with a cleansing ritual, courtesy of Old School Bruja. The event also gave attendees a chance to take guided tours of the space and party to the sounds of DJ Saucee, Jamal Moore, Bobbi Rush and other local artists. The roster reflects the diversity and artistry that Le Mondo seeks to represent.

Even Le Mondo’s most fervent detractors understand how much it could do for Baltimore’s artists. In her statement on Facebook, Alexander acknowledged its potential value.

“I *wrote* the elevator pitch; I can quote you chapter and verse as to why this venue could be a great asset to Baltimore’s arts community,” she wrote. “It just needs to be in someone else’s hands.”

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