In spring of 2012, Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. joined forces with Gaia, a resident of Station North and leader in the international street art movement, to produce Open Walls Baltimore. Over the course of two months, an unparalleled outdoor exhibition of twenty three murals and installations created by twenty nine street artists was mounted in Station North Arts & Entertainment District.
The Open Walls murals have enlivened public spaces, stimulated community revitalization and national dialogue, and attracted visitors and investors to Station North. Part public art project, part community revitalization strategy, Open Walls Baltimore has brought increased attention, civic pride, and increased investment to the Station North Arts District, its artists and businesses.
This year, Open Walls Part 2 is back with an international roster of 15 artists from altimore, New York, Europe and South America, all selected by curator Gaia. The artists will each create large-scale painted murals and installations throughout Station North between March and June 2014. These sites have been selected to draw visitors across the District, to produce artistic gateways to Station North, and to challenge artists to tell the story of legacy and revitalization in this central Baltimore neighborhood, which is experiencing renewed vibrancy through the arts.
This year’s open walls muralists are Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, Betsy Casañas, El Dercertor, ECB, ESCIF, GAIA, LNY, Logan Hicks, Santtu Mustonen, Nanook, Ozmo, D’Metrius Rice, Ernest Shaw Jr, Katey Truhn and Jessie Unterhalter, Zbiok, and Urban Playground Team.
In addition to murals, OWB2 has included a range of additional programming under the banner Open Walls Baltimore X. This includes Play the Plaza, a residency by the Urban Playground Group, a British Performance-Parkour team, who will animate Penn Station plaza with free performances and workshops. Play the Plaza is part of TRANSIT, an initiative of the Washington, DC cluster of the European Union National Institutes for Culture and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, supported by a grant from the EU delegation in the US.
Ben Stone, Director of Station North agreed to a conversation about OWB2 with BmoreArt’s Cara Ober.
Cara Ober: How did the first Open Walls come about?? What has been the impact of these murals on the identity of the community in Station North?
Ben Stone: Open Walls initially grew out of a conversation between Gaia and Will Backstrom of PNC Bank. Will attended Gaia’s senior thesis exhibition opening at MICA at Doreen Bolger’s invitation, and the two spoke about street art festivals and the possibility of bringing something similar to Baltimore.
Once that idea was hatched, Doreen connected me with Gaia and Will, and raised the money we needed to run the first festival, mostly from PNC and the National Endowment for the Arts. Painting dozens of murals over three months means that many artists are outside for extended periods of time, leading to all sorts of interactions between artists and nonartists in the neighborhood; it forces everyone to encounter art, and we find that many people living in the arts district have their first strong opinions about art during Open Walls.
We conducted a neighborhood-wide survey after the original Open Walls, and found that the project instilled a sense of neighborhood pride in most people. Residents told us that they felt proud that artists visiting from as far away as Argentina and South Africa decided to spend the entirety of their time in the United States in Charles North or Greenmount West. Open Walls has also definitely help put Station North on the international map as a destination for street art, and we now bump into people visiting from all over the US and abroad during and shortly after Open Walls.
CO: Building on the success of OWB1, what are the goals for Open Walls part 2?
BS: We’re expanding the reach of Open Walls and building on the successes and fixing the failures of the first project. We’re most interested in making sure that the murals are relevant to Station North and to Baltimore, rather than having artists create the same piece here that they painted in Australia or Italy or elsewhere. We’re also using OWB2 as a hook to get people interested in the rest of our programming, exhibitions and performances at other events in Station North, and in the two local community associations. We’re hoping that OWB2 will inspire some people to join their local community association and take a more active role in neighborhood politics.
We also recognize that OWB shines a bright light on local street artists, but has less of an impact on other artists, so we’re intentionally including dance, music, parkour, yoga, and helping fund the start of an artist residency program with our OWB funding. We want OWB2 to be the rising tide that lifts everyone in Station North, even if just for a few months. This is part of the reason it’s so great to run OWB in the spring- everyone is emerging from the winter, graduating, getting excited about the summer but not leaving town yet, and people are generally more open to coming out to interact with artists and performers and reengage with their community.
CO: Why, in your opinion, are murals important? What is their function in a community? What do they say about an area or neighborhood??
BS: Murals can serve a number of purposes. They’ve frequently been used to mask blight and poverty, and they can also be used to build community. From my perspective, I like to approach murals from the opposite perspective as I approach most of my work. We try to build consensus around most of our projects, and work closely with community stakeholders to generate ideas for projects and to support existing projects, and we at least partially measure our success by measuring the community’s response to our work.
With murals, I’m just as happy to have people love them as I am to have them hate them. As long as people are talking about the art, and engaging with us, I think we’ve succeeded to some degree. If the neighborhood comes together in opposition of a mural we’ve painted, than at least we’ve brought neighbors together, and in the end, a mural is just a mural- it can always be painted over if need be (we just require that they stay for at least a year). Considerable growth can come out of conflict and I think we in the planning and community development world need to embrace it more, especially when dealing with ephemeral and non-utilitarian things like murals.
CO: How long do they physically last? Are they restored if they start to decay or is that part of the process?
BS: We’re using very high quality paint, so the mural should stay vibrant for years if not decades. We do not intend to touch up the murals or fix them; their eventual decay is part of the project and many will be altered or removed as the buildings they’re on are redeveloped. All of the artists work quickly and understand that their pieces, like anything sited in the public realm, are ephemeral.
CO: What else do you want readers to know?
BS: With Open Walls Baltimore 2, we’re simultaneously trying to put Baltimore on the international street art map, while also distinguishing OWB2 from other international street art festivals. OWB2 features some of the same street artists as other festivals, but it also features fantastic local artists who are innately familiar with Baltimore, designers, performance artists, and a more racially diverse line up than any of the other festivals we’ve come across.
Thanks to support from the NEA, PNC, the European National Institutes for Culture, Visit Baltimore, BOPA, Timothy 618, and many others, we’re also able to hire a number of notable local artists and designers to work on the project.
Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. in association with Primary Colors Presents gives you the Open Walls Baltimore 2 Closing Party: “Dance to Keep from Crying” in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. Baltimore continues to define itself as a city that will not quit, that will not give up, that will continue to grow and improve, continue to dance. Our collective goal, in the spirit of Open Walls Baltimore, is to encourage beauty and progress by creating a free, public, outdoor dance event that brings together the artistic and musical monuments of change.
The celebration is FREE and open to the public, kicking off with the culminating performance of the six-week residency PLAY the PLAZA at Penn Station Plaza, featuring the Performance Parkour of the UK’s The Urban Playground Team, then progresses to the Ynot Lot at 4 W. North Avenue for “Dance To Keep From Crying,” and finally to after parties at The Crown, Windup Space, and Liam Flynn’s Ale House (Details TBA).
Hosted by local entertainers Ellen Degenerate, Whitney Biennial, and Lexie Mountain, “Dance to Keep from Crying” will feature performances by New Orleans sensation Big Freedia, Baltimore legend DJ Class, and ballroom/vogue-house culture leader Mike Q.
• 6:00PM – 7:00PM @ Penn Station Plaza (1500 N Charles Street): Play The Plaza culminating performance
• 7:00PM – 11:00PM @ the Ynot Lot (4 W North Avenue): “Dance To Keep From Crying”
• 11:00PM – 2:00AM @ the Crown, Windup Space, Liam Flynn’s Ale House: After Parties!