School 33 wins $100,000 national grant

With its bell tower, arched windows and handsome red-brick facade, the structure at 1427 Light St. looks like what it once was — an elementary school.

Nothing about the 1890 building suggests that for the past 33 years, School 33 has been one of Baltimore's premier showcases for contemporary local art.

That's about to change, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation that will help enhance the reputation of the nonprofit, city-run arts group with its neighbors, throughout the city and nationwide.

The New York-based foundation is scheduled to announce Monday that School 33 is one of nine small and midsize arts groups across the U.S. to win awards aimed at fostering innovation and collaboration in the spirit of Rauschenberg, the pioneering painter and graphic artist who died in 2008.

"The last two years have been really hard for nonprofit arts centers," says Rene Trevino, School 33's exhibitions coordinator.

"This grant is huge because it helps us to transform ourselves. It's a platform to really change. It's incredibly rewarding to receive this kind of recognition and to have someone say, 'We're excited about what you're doing, and here's something to help you move forward.' "

The winners were chosen from among 85 applicants, and the sizes of individual grants range from $25,000 to $150,000.

Foundation officials were impressed by the arts organization's stability; since 1979, School 33 has exhibited the works of 1,200 artists and provided studio space for 120. Openings regularly draw 250 visitors.

"We tried to choose organizations that, like School 33, are engaged in the community in a creative way," says Christy MacLear, the Rauschenberg Foundation's executive director.

"They want to take the art outside of the building and to break down boundaries between themselves and their neighborhood. Our foundation loves cities where there's a freedom to experiment and the barriers to innovation aren't too high. We think Baltimore is one of those places."

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which operates School 33, says the grant's significance transcends the dollar amount. He thinks the award signals that Baltimore is on par with such cutting-edge midsize cities as Seattle and Austin, Texas.

"Most grants given out by big national foundations go to organizations that have been invited to apply," he says.

"I'm not being negative when I say that Baltimore hasn't been at the forefront of those A-lists. Getting the grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation moves us forward. When people are looking for creative, diverse, fertile communities, we want them to think of Baltimore."

The grant money will be distributed over two years and will be used to fund four projects. At least a dozen local artists will be commissioned by School 33 to transform the building exterior and interior.

As Trevino explains it, though the historic schoolhouse undoubtedly is charming, it poses significant drawbacks as an arts venue.

"Because this is a landmark building, we can't hang a giant sign on the outside," he says.

"Once you find the front door and walk in, it takes a while to get to the galleries. Folks in the neighborhood aren't utilizing our programming as often as they could be, possibly because they don't know we're here."

This year, artists will reclaim a 1,900-square-foot lot off Birckhead Street that's strewn with hay and surrounded by a black fabric fence. Now the lot is a dumping ground for litter and pet waste. Some nights, homeless people nestle into the hay for warmth.

Trevino envisions a flexible performance space that includes an eco-friendly garden fed by a rainwater collection system, with flower beds and rain barrels. He'd like to see an artful gate that could swing open for performances, perhaps by local poets or a jazz trio.

"We want to transform a terrible eyesore and source of aversion into a viable and exciting art space that will make a significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood," he says. "It's a way for us to announce from outside the building who we are and what we want to do."

Another project this year will convert the shell of a former telephone booth into a permanent miniature exhibition space ideal for installation and time-based works. The first year will feature a pairing of works by sculptors with very different aesthetics: Jennifer Strunge's darkly whimsical fabric monsters and Jonathan Latiano's angular structures made from salt crystals and other natural materials.

In 2014, artists will rethink the bell tower with its three turrets and come up with something that Trevino says "will be a beacon for the whole neighborhood."

He's leaving it up to the artists to determine what a contemporary bell tower might be like. It might be an ideal place for aiming light projections or from which to broadcast music. Or it could take a different form.

"Part of what's so exciting," he says, "is that we're not sure exactly what we're going to get. But the artists we're bringing together are very ambitious and talented, and we know they'll do something amazing."

And finally, the grant will allow Trevino to relocate the front door to what is now a side entrance adjoining the elevator. Currently, the stairway and hall are drab and unadorned. By the time the project is finished, the vestibule's tall, blank walls will make a bold statement.

"When people walk in the front door, there will be no confusion," Trevino says. "They'll know right away that they're in an art space."

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