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Amid discussion on safe arts spaces, a look at three groups Baltimore can learn from

A look at Le Mondo, AS220 and Artspace, three organizations aiming to provide safe and affordable live/work spaces and venues for artists.

On a dreary Tuesday in December, young artists of varying backgrounds — white and of color, straight, gay, lesbian and transgender — quickly removed their possessions from a condemned Station North warehouse whose conditions Baltimore officials described as "deplorable."

The abrupt eviction was the end of the Bell Foundry arts building — where artists legally rented space to work, but illegally lived and hosted performances — but also the start of a wider discussion of issues like safety and affordable housing for artists, how do-it-yourself ethos contrasts with the mainstream, and gentrification.

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Now, a task force formed by Mayor Catherine Pugh to address the issues surrounding safe arts spaces is preparing to submit its findings and recommendations later this month, said task force co-chair Jon Laria. While Laria wasn't ready to disclose details, he said the group's efforts involved studying and soliciting information from arts organizations — both in Baltimore and across the country — that could serve as models for success.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to every issue that complicates artists' abilities to thrive, these organizations offer tangible examples Baltimore can learn from. We took a look at a few — one in its early stages here, and two outside the area with years of experience — to see what has led to their success.

Le Mondo (406-412 N. Howard St., downtown – Bromo Arts District; lemondo.org)

Cultural activity has been blooming in the downtown Bromo Arts District — and one of the most ambitious projects is Le Mondo, an arts development nonprofit organization led by artists Ric Royer, Evan Moritz and Carly Bales.

Aiming to promote artist-owned and -driven projects, Le Mondo purchased three vacant buildings in 2015 to set dreams of creating a multi-use arts complex in motion.

After months of renovations, Le Mondo opened its first building, featuring a bar, performance space and artist studios, last month with the debut of the Annex Theater's original production, "The King of Howard Street." Later plans for the other buildings include a 100-seat black-box theater, communal living and working spaces and apartments.

The process to complete Le Mondo's vision will probably take two more years, and likely cost between $4 million and $6 million to complete, Royer said.

So how are they doing it? With money from "every angle," Royer said, including a $300,000 grant from the city-state revitalization initiative Project C.O.R.E., fundraising events, and individual support from nearly 250 donors. The key, Royer said, was pitching Le Mondo not as performance spaces but as an opportunity to create a cultural hub.

"What's Baltimore need the most — three theaters? No," Royer said. "It's a way of taking a disinvested area, abandoned properties, and turning them into a destination. People who walk by or go by on the light rail see some activity, get excited about the neighborhood, get excited about their own city. We can do that through art."

Laria, who has toured Le Mondo, hopes it can be a model for other underdeveloped areas of the city.

"The challenge for Le Mondo is … trying to figure out how to combine various sources to get to the next level, to keep building out the space in a compliant way so that we keep adding layer upon layer of additional activity and vibrancy to that area," Laria said.

A regular presence at task force meetings, Royer said the group's collaborative approach — bringing different sections of the city together, from agency officials to artists and their advocates — resonated with him.

"Just breaking down some barriers and actually talking to people is a good thing," Royer said. "It's something our culture, especially in the arts, we don't do enough."

AS220 founder Bert Crenca speaks during an artists workshop in Providence, R.I. Crenca founded the artist-run organization in 1985.
AS220 founder Bert Crenca speaks during an artists workshop in Providence, R.I. Crenca founded the artist-run organization in 1985. (Courtesy AS220)

AS220 (Providence, R.I.; as220.org)

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A major source of inspiration for Le Mondo is AS220 — an artists-run nonprofit whose three mixed-use buildings have inspired artists from across the country to move there. (In fact, Royer worked there for three years.)

"Over time, they've really grown to become one of the main cultural institutions in the city of Providence," said Stephanie Fortunato, director of art, culture and tourism for Providence.

The AS220 buildings, which total more than 100,000 square feet, house galleries by local artists, performance venues and studios, along with 48 studio apartments where artists can live and work, founder Bert Crenca said. Federal tax credits, fundraising and plenty of sweat equity helped fund the projects, he said.

AS220 pulls its funding from a variety of sources: artists' rents, philanthropy and foundation support, and for-profit businesses like an in-house restaurant, Crenca said.

Housing affordability — an issue at the heart of Baltimore's dialogue surrounding arts spaces — had long been a point of emphasis for Crenca, and the majority of AS220's residential/work studios have less than market-rate rents (ranging from $333-$902 per month, which includes utilities). Artists who make less than $26,500 per year qualify for income-restricted studios.

Jackie Davis, an actor who has been living and working in a 719-square-foot AS220 studio since June 2011, said her affordable living situation has made her a better artist.

"I am able to do work, and not have to have three or four jobs," said Davis, who pays $719 per month in rent, and like every artist living at AS220, contributes monthly five hours of community service within the organization. "I get to focus on my craft and make enough money, which isn't very much, but it's enough to cover the rental expense."

Crenca's advice to Baltimore is to create a relationship between the city and its artists built on education and constructive compromise rather than antagonism. City agencies should understand that most artists need guidance in making sure their spaces are compliant, he said. (Laria said the task force plans to recommend creating an "arts advocate" position who would work as a liaison in hopes of addressing this issue.)

Success is "going to require a lot of community organizing and conversation. It's just the way it is," Crenca said.

Visual artist Antonia Guerrero works inside her live/work studio at Artspace PS109 in East Harlem, N.Y.
Visual artist Antonia Guerrero works inside her live/work studio at Artspace PS109 in East Harlem, N.Y. (James Shanks)

Artspace (Minneapolis; artspace.org)

In terms of reach, the nonprofit developer Artspace has one of the largest, with projects operating or in the works in more than 20 states. (This includes Maryland: Artspace is responsible for artist lofts in Mount Rainier in Prince George's County, and is working on the Silver Spring Arts Campus, tentatively scheduled to open by the end of 2018.)

At the heart of Artspace's mission is to create long-term affordable spaces where artists can live and work. Since its first project in St. Paul, Minn., in 1989, Artspace has found ways to recreate its success throughout the country because of its willingness to be both tenacious and patient in finishing projects, said Wendy Holmes, Artspace's senior vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships.

"We are willing to be very entrepreneurial and intrepid about finding as many different resources to pull these projects together," Holmes said.

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Artspace, which owns and managers the properties after they're built, utilizes federal low-income housing tax credits to keep rents below market rate. The group is able to keep rents low over a long period of time by refinancing the projects and then reapplying for new tax credits after the previous ones expire, Holmes said.

"It's highly unusual to find organizations that are old enough to have gone through those cycles of refinancing," she said, "but that puts such an emphasis on long-term affordability way into the future."

About a decade ago, Artspace came to Baltimore for a preliminary feasibility study in Station North, Holmes said, but no significant progress was made.

Holmes said Artspace "would love to be working" in Baltimore, but nothing is currently in the works. (She and Laria said the task force did reach out for advice on best practices, but that was the extent of it.)

Monica L. Williams, a performance artist who has been living in El Barrio's Artspace PS109, a former public school in East Harlem, N.Y., for more than two years, said she's still discovering benefits of her top-floor studio apartment. (Laria said the Baltimore task force is exploring the idea of identifying a recently decommissioned public school as a mixed-use space for artists.)

"I went from a one-roommate situation [in Brooklyn, N.Y.], and I was paying twice as much as I pay now," said Williams, who pays the water and electricity bills, while Artspace pays heating. She declined to say how much she pays in rent, but the Artspace website lists PS109 studios as either $494 or $785 per month. An artist's annual earnings play a factor in which units are available.

"What living in PS109 has done is given me time to innovate … to create a space of intention, as opposed to being on a hamster wheel per se, delivering product after product," she said. "The beauty of Artspace is the autonomy and agency that's being created from the artists in the building."

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