Baltimore Safe Arts Space task force recommends repurposing vacant buildings, appointing liaison and more

A Baltimore task force released a set of wide-ranging recommendations Wednesday for ways the city can help establish more safe spaces for artists to live and work — including developing a business plan to transform vacant properties into arts spaces.

The suggestion to use vacant properties was one of more than 40 recommendations Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Safe Art Space task force made after working for the past year to address the many problems surrounding Baltimore’s lack of safe and affordable spaces for artists.

The 25-member group was formed last December, after Baltimore housing and fire officials shut down the Bell Foundry — a Station North warehouse where dozens of artists lived, worked and hosted live performances — citing safety violations and deplorable conditions. The closure came days after a warehouse fire at a similar underground arts venue in Oakland, Calif., killed 36.

Pugh said at a news conference Wednesday that she had not reviewed the recommendations extensively yet, and there was no specific timetable for implementing any of the suggestions.

Jon Laria, an attorney who is co-chair of the task force, said most recommendations won’t require additional funding. But the task force did suggest tapping private funding sources such as businesses, nonprofits, philanthropic sources and community development financial institutions to carry out some recommendations.

“We’re in discussions with a number of parties around the city who are interested in providing that kind of resource,” Laria said.

While saying she needed more time to go over the recommendations, Pugh said she was initially enthusiastic about the potential of repurposing recently closed public schools into spaces for artists. In the report, the task force recommended the city “assess the inventory of school facilities coming off-line” as part of an initiative to replace Baltimore’s aging schools, and see which have the potential to be adapted into spaces where artists can live, work and perform.

“What really excites me is … using spaces that have not been lived in and looked at for artists housing,” Pugh said.

The task force and Pugh have been criticized by some in the arts community for the time it has taken for the recommendations to be made public. Initially scheduled for release in June by the task force, the report was delayed months due to formatting and editing, Laria said this month.

On Wednesday, co-chair Franklin McNeil outlined the task force’s year-long process, and how it gained insight and feedback from artists through an anonymous survey and a public forum.

“It was our hope that we made the process as cooperative as possible,” McNeil said.

Other highlights from the recommendations include designating a city staff member as a “point person” to deal with issues related to the support of art spaces, and creating a public education program in collaboration with artists featuring a how-to guide and safety checklist.

The task force also recommended amending zoning codes to create mixed-use art spaces, and establishing a funding source for existing art spaces in need of “gap” funding to meet code requirements.

The plan noted that any funds raised should be made available “in an equitable manner” to minority artists.

Rapper Butch Dawson, a former Bell Foundry tenant, did not attend the news conference, but said the proposals he has heard are “definitely encouraging.” He stopped short of saying he was optimistic, since he doesn’t expect all the recommendations to be implemented.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Dawson said.

But he liked the task force’s suggestions, particularly the ideas of establishing a liaison and identifying shuttered schools in the city that could be repurposed as arts spaces.

“If you’re putting something very uplifting like that in the neighborhood, it’ll steer the kids away from getting into crime,” Dawson said. “That’s the foundation right there.”

Baltimore Rock Opera Society artistic director Aran Keating, who attended Wednesday’s news conference, said the recommendations are “unequivocally good” in their intentions, but he’s ultimately taking a wait-and-see approach. After initially being evicted, the theater company gained sanctioned access to its first-floor practice space inside the Bell Foundry earlier this year, Keating said.

“It’s really on the administration to work aggressively to adopt that stuff so that they can actually start to make a change on the ground,” Keating said.

Pugh called the city’s arts community — which contributes nearly $17 million in economic impact and is responsible for more than 12,000 city jobs, according to the report — very important.

“We want more emerging artists in Baltimore,” Pugh said. “We want the arts community to feel more than welcome to be a part of our city.”

Highlights of task force recommendations

  • Designating a city staff member to function as the “point person” for issues related to arts spaces
  • Creating an inter-agency Artspace Resource Team “to help address circumstances where art space projects need to be coordinated with more than one city agency.”
  • Creating an Artspace Technical Assistance program, run independent of city government, “to provide advice and assistance” to artists and art space developers, owners and operators. The program would focus on navigating permitting and code enforcement, identifying funding sources for improvements and provide coaching on grant writing/loan applications.
  • Amend zoning codes to remove a barrier to the creation of mixed-use art space, combining arts studio and/or gallery space with communal housing for artists.
  • Invest money in existing arts nonprofit organizations, “including but not limited to the [Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts], Station North Arts and Entertainment District, or [Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s] Art in Sacred Places program.”
  • Develop and maintain a Code Modification Database so the public can search code modification requests previously granted by the city.
  • Develop a business plan to make city-owned property, including existing buildings, vacant parcels and decomissioned schools, available as potential venues for artists to live, work and perform.
  • Establish a substantial pool of capital to serve as a funding source for existing art spaces in need of “gap” funding to meet code requirements or make essential improvements.
  • Better use and develop micro-loan programs to provide low-interest loans to arts organizations and artists.
  • Consider applying to create additional arts and entertainment districts, such as in and around Pennsylvania and North Avenues, the city’s “historic center of African-American arts and culture.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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