Mayor announces plan to develop arts districts

City releases plan to strengthen its designated arts districts through collaboration and promotion.

The city plans to bolster the Station North, Highlandtown and Bromo Seltzer Tower areas, which are Baltimore's three designated arts and entertainment districts, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office announced in a report released Friday.

Along with the announcement came the release of a 37-page report that outlined the city's plans. (Read the full report in PDF form here.)

The arts areas, it said, will be improved through collaborative marketing and programming, more flexible code and zoning variances for artist workspaces, and other initiatives.

The report also recommends "identifying ways to incentivize the preservation of existing art spaces," establishing "better clarity and communication regarding tax incentives" and applying for new arts and entertainment districts with the state.

The report features 27 recommendations from a mayor-commissioned working group that included representatives of city agencies, the Maryland State Arts Council and the three arts districts. The group met "multiple times between April and December 2014" to discuss the state of the arts scene, the report says.

Priya Bhayana, director of the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District and a member of the report's working group, said meetings were monthly at first and then became biweekly toward the end of the process. The meetings were the first time the three arts districts had come together to discuss and define their purposes within the city's arts ecosystem, she said.

Bhayana believes the meetings crystallized the districts' positions more clearly in the eyes of the city.

"There is a growing sense of understanding at the city level the role the arts districts are playing," Bhayana said Friday.

One goal of the report, she said, is for the city to include the arts districts in discussions on economic and community development.

"We're basically looking to be a part of the outcome budgeting process," Bhayana said.

Home to the Creative Alliance and SkyLofts Gallery, Highlandtown became a designated arts district in 2002 through Maryland's Arts & Entertainment District program. That same year, Station North — which features Area 405, Graffiti Warehouse and Metro Gallery, among others — became the city's second designated area. A decade later, Rawlings-Blake established the Bromo Seltzer Tower area, where Everyman Theatre, EMP Collective and the H&H Building operate, as Baltimore's third arts district

Rawlings-Blake has approved $9.2 million in city funding since 2010 to support projects in the three districts, according to the report.

DIY spaces — which include warehouses and residences that host concerts and parties but are not properly zoned or permitted for events — were widely discussed by the working group, Bhayana said.

Many members of arts communities around the world advocate for these types of spaces because of their promotion of artists, cost effectiveness and general positive spirit of celebrating those who are less known. In recent years, some in Baltimore's arts scene have suggested a "crackdown" by police — and by extension, the city — to shut down these makeshift venues.

When asked where Rawlings-Blake stands on these types of do-it-yourself venues and shows, and if the report changed her pervious feelings on the topic, city spokesman Howard Libit said the mayor wants to encourage unconventional arts-related activities while also requiring the organizers to comply with "our critical zoning codes for the safety of everyone there."

"The issue is not about trying to stifle creativity," Libit said. "The mayor certainly wants to work with the people who are engaged in the arts, but code enforcement and Baltimore police have to play a role here to ensure that any of these are safe and legal. We all want to work together to make it happen."

The report recommends continued open dialogue between the city, the artists and the events' hosts, Bhayana said. The hope is to make temporary — often called "pop-up" — exhibits and events easier to execute and "relooking, in general, [at] how event permitting happens," she said.

Ultimately, Bhayana said, the further development of the arts districts cannot solely rely on the city's involvement. The meetings and the resulting report are tools to bring the arts districts together while pinpointing areas and initiatives in which the city can assist, she said. From Bhayana's perspective, the report is a call to action from within the community.

"It's really up to all of us to take actions on these items. I can't say that it's all the city's onus," she said. "It's not going to be a totally easy task. It's definitely going to require the continued work of the people that were involved in the working group, including the city."

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