It’s arguable that Jacques Kelly did the local arts community a favor. When The Baltimore Sun columnist recently wrote about what’s next in store for the building located at 120 W. North Avenue in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, he failed to mention its previous owner, artist Sherwin Mark, and the many artists who maintained studios at Load of Fun. The online response to this oversight was swift and indignant. The outrage flowed in Facebook feeds and a few blog posts went up with the kind of fist-waving spleen that Internet self-righteousness stokes. Break out the pitchforks: history was being rewritten.
Mark himself called it “social amnesia” in a written response to the City Paper. Station North executive director Ben Stone penned a diplomatic letter to the editor, which appeared first on Facebook. The social media comments may be ongoing.
Now, let’s get a few disclosures out of the way. I was one of the many people who cried foul about the Sun story on Facebook. For the article Kelly interviewed Lauren “Mac” McLure, director of the Baltimore Arts Realty Corp. (BARCO), the nonprofit developer that currently owns the property. BARCO was created in 2012 with start-up funding from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, the Towson-based philanthropic foundation that supports a number of arts (and science, technology, and social justice) endeavors in Baltimore and the Mid-Atlantic, including the Rubys project grants and BmoreArt, where you’re reading this. (And in the interest of full disclosure, my current employer, the Johns Hopkins University, is, alongside the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of the two anchor institutions partnering in the redevelopment of Station North’s Parkway, along with the Maryland Film Festival and Centre theaters.)
I point out the above not to position myself at some nexus that provides me with a privileged position to comment upon this situation. I do so to spotlight the organizational and institutional interests at play here. There is a great deal of capital invested in Station North, from the government, institutions of higher education, and nonprofit organizations and private enterprises, and a great deal of input from those odd kinds of development corporations and partnerships that pull their board members from government, institutions of higher education, and nonprofit organizations and private enterprises. The city now has a decades-long history of trying to use—I mean, collaborate with artists as the catalyst for urban renewal. And who gets to benefit from that renewal demands constant scrutiny and discussion.
This approach is neither novel nor localized; it’s frequently the de facto strategy for areas devastated by the neoliberal urbanism of the past 40 years. A version of this the strategy enticed artists, developers, and entrepreneurs to invest in Sowebo, the Southwest Baltimore area surrounding Hollins Market, in the 1980s. The neighborhood always threatened to become an arts district in practice if not in designation, and in 1994 it was included in a federally designated Empowerment Zone, those distressed urban and rural areas that became eligible for tax credits and grants for economic development (the results were mixed to ineffective). Artists and the annual festival remain, but the hopes of the neighborhood’s revival now seem to be tied up more with the University of Maryland BioPark than the ostensible creative class. (Side-eye thought: the more “creative class” gets thrown around and used in urban renewal discussions, the more it is blatantly apparent that the term is policy-speak panacea for reversing white flight.)
The economic promise of cultural tourism, a variation of this strategy, was turned to during the Kurt Schmoke administration in 1997 when the city was capitalizing on its 200th anniversary with the Baltimore Pastport project, designed to encourage visits to city’s museums and history attractions. The program launched shortly after the Baltimore City Life Museums closed, and the September 1997 issue of Curator included one insider’s detailed exploration of the public/private financial tensions behind that closure.
I mention that shuttering here because it wasn’t that long ago, though it can feel like the distant past. Much of the Baltimore City Life Museums artifacts went to the Historical Society and its facilities acquired by the city, but not the curatorial efforts to study and promote that history. The Baltimore City Historical Society was formed in 2001 to address that vacuum. Currently there is an effort to revive the Peale Museum, which was part of the City Life Museums network, and BmoreArt editor Cara Ober recently spoke with former Sun columnist James D. Dilts about that project.
Dilts is also a consummate architecture historian, one of many local writers I had the pleasure of working with during my time at the City Paper whose knowledge of Baltimore history runs deep and nuanced. Tom Chalkley, Charles Cohen, and Brennen Jensen also tackled the “old building beat” as Jensen once joked, and, yes, perusing each of their archives will yield reporting about a cinema house no longer with us, the Congress Hotel where the infamous Marble Bar used to be located, and the American Dime Museum, which couldn’t last long enough to be part of the Station North promise.
Such is one way we’re reminded about what once happened where we’re doing things now. And it’s not enough. Photographs are not enough. Individual memory is not enough. It’s not enough because reporting and documentation and narrative, in the guise of “storytelling,” is the preferred delivery system for corporate brand management and marketing. And as Tom Wolfe argued in the 1980s, we might want to be a little suspect anytime corporate wealth and art intersect. I’m not saying that the PNC Transformative Art Prize, launched in 2011-2012 to support “communities in their efforts to improve their surroundings with long-term and lasting projects”, was created purely to generate good PR in the kind of low-income neighborhoods that it might’ve played a role in damaging through “abusive foreclosure practices”, but it might be interesting to map where it currently owns foreclosed homes and where it has funded transformative projects.
That’s’ what makes Kelly’s oversight such a blessing in disguise: it’s a highly visible reminder of how seamlessly reporting can be turned into marketing and yet another instance of how acceptable it is to disregard creative labor. And it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. When Mayor Stephnie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance holds the biannual Mayor’s Cultural Town Hall meeting tonight at the Maryland Historical Society, hopefully creative workers and their allies will show up in droves for this infrequent opportunity to voice their opinions to local power. Power, of course, rarely listens to what it’s told, especially when those speaking don’t have desirable investment capital. But as we’ve witnessed quite recently, if you don’t take part in the city’s ongoing narrative about artists being branded as creative placemakers, that history will be written for you.