Former MICA president: Artists need safe spaces

Fred Lazarus: We must all work together to be certain the spaces Baltimore artists use are safe.

The closing of the Bell Foundry last Monday due to numerous code and safety violations, just three days after the tragic fire in Oakland, Calif., that killed three dozen individuals including at least one MICA alum, should be a call to action for all of us. Already, many have stepped forward to address the immediate needs of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and the artists who were displaced when the Bell foundry was shut down. However, a greater challenge will be to find long term solutions to the needs of artists and arts organizations throughout the city for affordable and safe spaces to live, work and perform.

Baltimore's arts community has seen dramatic growth over the past decade. The music scene has become nationally recognized. There are numerous new theater groups and dozens of new galleries. More and more artists are electing to stay in Baltimore after college, and others are moving here. This vibrant and growing arts community has become a critical component of Baltimore's increasing reputation as a place for creative people to live and work, and this trend is a key element of so much of what is our city's future. No single factor is making this happen, but the availability of space for artists to work, live and perform is essential to maintaining the momentum.

For decades, in cities across the country, artists have looked for and used large, inexpensive, empty loft spaces. The spaces often lacked adequate electrical service and outlets, however, and poor heating systems and old windows made them cold. They also lacked sprinkler systems and egress required by current codes. Converting these spaces to address these issues required major investments that would force the rents up beyond what the artists could afford.

In recent years, a number of initiatives in Baltimore were creatively brought to fruition to address artists' needs. In Station North, two artist housing projects were developed by Jubilee Baltimore and were immediately filled. Also in Station North, the Deutsch Foundation led initiatives to redevelop Motor House into space for artists, arts organizations and performances, as well as creating Open Works — a maker space for artists. Other examples include the redevelopment of the Bromo Tower into artist studios and the new home for the Single Carrot Theater in Remington. Each of these projects required a committed developer, many partners, support from the city and state, creative financing and three to five years of hard work. Each of these has helped, but they do not come close to meeting all the needs for space.

Baltimore has hundreds and maybe even thousands of artists who need space. To maintain the strength of our arts community and its impact on the city, we must all work together to be certain that all the spaces the artists are currently using are safe. If there are deficiencies, we have to work with the artists to find the financial resources to bring them up to code.

Mayor Catherine Pugh recently spoke of the value of artists to the city, but also of the importance of making certain that the spaces where they live, work and perform are safe. Achieving this goal is an opportunity to activate the kind of partnerships and joint efforts that were discussed by so many of the speakers at the mayor's inauguration. MICA, as an anchor institution, has already committed to actively participate in an effort to find lasting solutions. The Central Baltimore Partnership, local foundations and nonprofits are also already at the table. These partners, working with the city agencies and the artists can find creative solutions but must also stay united to implement these ideas. Meeting these needs through the work of this broad coalition will make Baltimore a leader in creating safe and affordable space for artists and, in turn, this will help drive Baltimore forward as a creative, vibrant city.

Fred Lazarus IV is president emeritus of the Maryland Institute College of Art; his email is flazarus@mica.edu.

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