Artists staying 'current'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The pristine white walls are hung with paintings and drawings and in the middle of the floor a couple of fabulous fabric art sculptures dominate the room.

Everything about the place is youthful, energetic and up-to-date, including its name: Current, an artist-run gallery and cooperative in the heart of downtown that officially opens today with a sparkling group show featuring its members.

"We are a gallery of artists," says Dale Ihnken, 26, a painter, installation artist and founding member of the 15-member group that put the project together with help from the Downtown Partnership and the Baltimore Development Corp.

"Very seldom is there a space where young, emerging artists can get together to show work and talk about art, so this is somewhat unusual," Ihnken adds.

Unusual is hardly the word. The new gallery at 30 S. Calvert St. is practically one-of-a-kind, a collaboration between the city and artists in which the artists get city-owned space rent-free in a prime downtown location while the city gets a group of young, enthusiastic tenants who will spice up the neighborhood and attract visitors to the area bounded by Calvert, Lombard, Mercer and Grant streets.

Improving area

"We were looking for ways to make the area more attractive," said Marshall Snively of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group for the downtown business district. "We had earlier started a program called Art Exposure, which allowed artists to exhibit in vacant storefront windows, so we saw this as taking that idea a step further by actually allowing artists to work in the space."

The city-owned building at 30 S. Calvert housed an office-supply company that went out of business two years ago. Since then the city has been seeking proposals from developers to turn the property into a mixed-use facility that would include retail stores, housing, offices and parking facilities.

But in the meantime, rather than allow the space to remain vacant, the city wants artists to help give the area some life. Current's lease allows it to use the first-floor space as a gallery and the second and third floors for studio space over the next six months or until a developer is chosen to revitalize the site.

Under a plan worked out among the Downtown Partnership, the Baltimore Development Corp., a quasi-public city agency responsible for economic development, and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the city invited artists to submit proposals for using the vacant office building as gallery or studio space.

"The artists were great," Snively recalled. "We encouraged people to get a group together and apply for all three floors, because frankly it was easier for us and we wanted to emphasize the need for a gallery space on the first floor."

Of the 20 responses the city received, it chose Current because the young artists in the group seemed extremely competent and highly motivated.

"I thought these artists were young, energetic and very organized," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. "Collectively they made an excellent group that would make a difference on Calvert Street in bringing more life and energy to that area."

One of a kind?

Fowler said that he was not aware of similar programs in other cities and that this is the first time the concept has been tried in Baltimore. But if the project is successful, the city might try the idea in other downtown areas, Fowler said, adding that Current's 1,500- square-foot space probably would cost at least $30,000 a year at current market rates.

"I'd love to be able to do this with a lot of properties downtown," he said. "It shows how a neighborhood can be transformed in a very positive way. This is a great opportunity for the artists as well as for downtown."

The gallery's hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There will be an opening reception tonight from 7 to 9. For more information, visit the gallery Web site at www.current space.com.

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