I Am Here Because It’s Home: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Mayor’s Cultural Town Meeting

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The Mayor’s Cultural Town Meeting occurs every two years, as an opportunity for Baltimore’s mayor to reach out to artists and cultural institutions. It also creates a chance for public questions to be raised and for public debate. This year’s meeting occurred on Wednesday, October 15 at the Maryland Historical Society in Mt. Vernon.

Before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took center stage, Jamie Hand, Director of Research for ArtPlace America, a granting institution, discussed the term “creative placemaking” and defined it in the context of her mission. She also reminded the audience that ArtPlace America is a temporary organization that will exist for 10 years, ending in 2020.

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Jamie Hand from ArtPlace America

According to Hand, creative placemaking positions arts and culture as a core part of community building – including aspects of housing, transportation, and public safety. So far, ArtPlace America has funded 189 projects across the country and spent 56.8 million dollars, including a grant to Baltimore in 2011. This September, they opened their fifth round of grant applications and the deadline ends on November 3, 2014. They plan to invest 11 million this year in different projects.

What is creative placemaking? Hand said it means strengthening communities through art. More succinctly, it is “doing art to change a place.” It’s not giving artists money to do art projects, rather, it offers funding for arts based interventions to solve community problems. According to Hand, this means “planning, anchoring, fixing, and activating” communities and urban infrastructure.

Hand cited several examples of recent projects including a community theater and urban farm in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Detroit, based around an existing historically significant architectural fragment. In addition, ArtPlace America funded The Fairmount Cultural Corridor project in Boston, a water basin/ public park project in Fargo, North Dakota, and in Saint Paul, MN, a way to transform a light rail construction site into a cultural destination during several years of construction. To me, the most exciting project she mentioned was the most applicable to Baltimore – The Revolve Retail Revolution Project in Detroit, where artists and craftspeople took over an abandoned strip mall and completely renovated these stores to celebrate, and sell, local work. Hand showed a video of the project and the public outpouring of support for this new retail destination was moving.

In Baltimore, ArtPlace America funded several projects, as well as ‘Art Lives Here’ in Prince George’s county and the New Hampshire Avenue project in Montgomery County. What all these projects have in common is revitalized urban communities, economies, architecture, and infrastructure where arts and culture came up with the solution to a problem. It’s refreshing to view the arts and culture in this light, as community partners and problem solvers, rather than as struggling creatives attempting to fund their practice. These types of grants show the value of artists, creative thinking, and the power of visionary, community-based ideas.

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I noticed that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was taking notes during Hand’s presentation, which was encouraging, as many of the projects presented could thrive here in Baltimore. After Hand stepped down, Bill Cole, the new president of the Baltimore Development Corporation introduced the Mayor. He briefly spoke of the importance of the arts as an economic driver and mentioned startup resources, micro-loans, and cultural incubators as ways the BDC is engaging with the creative community.

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood up to speak, she appeared relaxed and friendly, and spoke with pride about a range of arts based programs that Baltimore currently offers. She said that, as City Council President, she helped to change the rules for live entertainment in public spaces many years ago, in order to allow music performance to flourish in the city. She said that it was a priority for her that students who attend college here also stay here. “We start the arts at a young age here in Baltimore and Dr. Gregory Thornton is making it a priority,” she said.

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The Mayor went on to say that the arts are transforming our city and cited Growing Green as an example of local creative placemaking, where vacant lots are transformed into green community spaces including farms, parks, and small theaters. She cited BOPA’s Transit Project, ‘Lost Things’ in the Bromo Arts District, the Parcour and Open Walls projects in Station North, the cross walk painting project, the Warner Street Mural near the Horse Shoe Casino, and even mentioned Steven Powers’ controversial ‘Forever Together’ mural as a success because it got people talking about the purpose of art. The Mayor said that his quote on the side of the buildings, “I am here because it’s home,” expressed her own feelings towards Baltimore.

With a slide show rolling, the Mayor cited a long, and frankly impressive, list of funding opportunities for artists in Baltimore as well as the amount of money that was available from each. Putting myself in the Mayor’s shoes (stiletto heels), I could understand why she takes pride in the growing number of grants, prizes, and opportunities for funding here in Baltimore including The Sondheim Prize, Baker Artist Awards, The Rubys, Free Fall Baltimore, PNC Bank Transformative Prize, and the Creative Baltimore Fund.

Although impressive, let’s get one thing straight – there is not enough money for artists in this city and there never will be. Rather than criticizing politicians for this problem, it’s important to realize the job of the artist is always to dream bigger and to plan new initiatives, so artists will ALWAYS be seeking funding.  I am not saying that the city of Baltimore is currently doing enough for artists, but I do think it’s important to remember that this is an evolving conundrum. If artists are doing their jobs correctly, there will never be enough funding for all of it, and this is an ever-developing problem to solve. To me, what was most encouraging from the list of opportunities is that it is growing and much of that growth is recent, suggesting that momentum is building.

After citing GBCA and BOPA as organizations that are helping to “grow Baltimore” and create jobs here, the Mayor accepted questions from the audience and proved to be a good listener, asking follow up questions rather than launching into an answer. There were instances when she admitted that she didn’t have an answer for a question, but that she’d be happy to refer them to someone else who could answer it, which came off as respectful, rather than guarded. Questions ran the gamut from art education in public schools to keeping the circulator free (“I’m all about keeping it free!” the Mayor exclaimed) to business mentoring for small non-profit startups.

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“If you were a small business, we would have a long list of mentorship programs for you,” said the Mayor. “For arts non-profits we don’t have this infrastructure in place, but similar mentoring should be available. It’s ridiculous to reinvent the wheel. We need to learn from each other and match up emerging businesses with established ones.”

Rachel Rabinowitz asked the Mayor if she would consider granting programs for live/work spaces for creative professionals. Although she didn’t say yes, the mayor cited her Vacants to Value program as a source of pride and said that the city is already providing funding to encourage people to live near their work. “There are significant investments being made to encourage people to make a home in Baltimore and create vibrant communities. We can take a look at how we can expand this,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

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Mia, an Arts Coordinator, stood up and asked how placemaking grants could become more equitable along racial and socioeconomic lines. The mayor replied, “We are trying to break through and this is a challenge. There is art that is widely consumed and a lot of art in Baltimore is underground and operates outside the mainstream. If you are here, and people don’t have access to your programming, you can help to connect us – the BDC hires people to make sure that the arts and entertainment are heard.”

The conversation hit a wall, no pun intended, with a discussion of McKeldin Fountain, which is currently slated for demolition. The mayor said that the decision to tear down the structure was made in 2008 and she wasn’t exactly sure what the decision process was. The questioner, an architect, pressed that she would like more discussion, a public discussion, to consider keeping the fountain, but she was referred to the Deputy Mayor and invited to attend an upcoming public meeting to discuss proposed options for replacing the fountain, not whether or not to tear it down.

At this point it was eight o’clock and the meeting ended with the Mayor thanking those who made the evening possible. After this, I joined the Mayor and her staff in the library upstairs, for a private discussion.

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Author Cara Ober is founding editor at BmoreArt.

All photos are by Mark Dennis.

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