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City's unique arts scene enriches and unifies us

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OVER THE years, I've watched Baltimore struggle with a host of urban ills, from a shrinking tax base and poor schools to epidemics of homicides and drug addiction. For a while it seemed no city could overcome such intractable problems and that our future was one of inevitable decline.

Yet that has not happened, and one of the reasons I suspect it has not is because somehow we have managed to maintain, even expand, a vibrant arts scene that may be unique in the nation.

The arts in Baltimore are alive and well. Not only do they buoy our spirits and soothe our souls, they contribute in tangible ways to our economy and spur new development that will help assure our future.

If that seems an exaggeration, consider: A few years ago, the state Department of Business and Economic Development reported that the annual impact of nonprofit arts organizations on Maryland's economy was more than $600 million, a figure comparable to the state's horse-racing industry.

That's a lot of money, and a lot of it was spent in Baltimore, generating new jobs, businesses and opportunities for our citizens. The arts have been an important engine of economic development in Baltimore over the last decade, and their role in the city's growth is bound to increase in coming years.

We often tend to think of the arts only in terms of our own personal encounter with a particular painting in a museum, a piece of music at a concert or drama at the theater. Yet we are never truly alone experiencing these things; our experiences are always shared with others who make up the audience for artworks, and it is in this collective sense that the arts have their greatest impact on our community.

The arts bring us together, binding the ties of community in innumerable ways that unite us in common purpose and shared destiny.

The most visible example of this, of course, is Artscape, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts, which this year brought together more than 1.5 million people across racial and class lines.

But Artscape is only one event. Where the arts really hold the fabric of community together is the day-to-day work of the city's artists and performers in theaters, galleries, concert halls, churches and school auditoriums. This is where the richness of Baltimore's artistic traditions flower every week, year in and year out.

Baltimore's arts community may be unique in the nation, because I can think of no other city of comparable size where so many artists are living and working and which is home to so many world-class arts institutions.

Take the visual arts, for example. The Walters Art Museum houses a collection that spans 5,000 years of history that would be the envy of any city anywhere. And it has put on some fabulous shows in recent years - Monet's water lilies, Dutch paintings from Utrecht and last season's stunning Manet still lifes are just a few examples of exhibitions that have drawn visitors from across the country and around the world.

Moreover, the recent reinstallation of the Walters' permanent collection has been a resounding architectural and aesthetic triumph. The new galleries not only show off the Walters' holdings with drama and panache but are so comfortable that they make prolonged looking a pleasure.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is likewise home to many distinguished collections, most notably the Cone Wing of early modern art, one of the country's premier collections of paintings by Matisse and other modern masters. The Cone galleries have been extensively refurbished, and the museum also houses important collections of prints and photographs, Old Master paintings and decorative arts.

Meanwhile, the presence here of the American Visionary Art Museum has been a pure delight. AVAM, which specializes in the presentation of works by "outsider" or "visionary artists" - largely self-taught individuals with minimal connection to traditional fine arts institutions - has made Baltimore a national center for the appreciation and study of such works.

One can't talk about the Baltimore arts scene without mentioning the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of the three or four top art schools in the country, which draws students from all over the world. Many of the young artists drawn to Baltimore by MICA remain after graduation, leavening the city with their talents and lending an abundance of youthful energy to the city's vibrant arts scene.

Many of these younger artists show their works in the city's growing number of alternative art spaces. In the last year, half a dozen or more new galleries have sprung up to compete with the more established commercial venues and offer emerging artists an outlet where their work can be shown and discussed.

And that's just the visual arts.

In music, we have the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Opera Company, choral arts societies, early music groups and the world-class music school at Peabody Conservatory, which, like the Maryland Institute, attracts distinguished faculty and students from all over the world.

In theater, there's the Mechanic, Center Stage, Arena Stage, Everyman's Theater, Theater Project and a host of smaller experimental companies, college drama troupes and dinner theaters that put on plays and performances practically year round.

For a city of about 600,000, that's a lot of art going on, and for me, at least, it's one reason Baltimore remains an interesting, exciting place despite all its problems. I'd like to see the city devote even more of its resources toward developing the infrastructure that makes Baltimore an attractive place for artists to live and work.

It's often been noted that Baltimore's relatively low cost of living and its geographical proximity to Washington, Philadelphia and New York are among its strongest selling points. The city should take a hand in the development of housing for artists, musicians, actors and dancers and in the conversion of abandoned warehouses into studio spaces.

We need to accelerate the growth of a critical mass of artist residents who can help reclaim blighted areas of the city and spur new investment in neighborhoods. This is already beginning to happen in some areas; why not make it a significant part of the city's long-term redevelopment plans?

The arts, of course, cannot solve Baltimore's problems all by themselves. But they are an important part of the total picture of urban renaissance, along with tourism, professional sports, the health and medical professions and the development of new industries.

We are in a situation in which we will need to use every resource at our disposal - including the arts - if Baltimore is to remain an attractive place to live in a rapidly changing world.

Glenn McNatt is The Sun's art critic.

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