Why the Washington Post “Can the Arts Save Baltimore?” Article Made Me Throw Up in my Mouth

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Opinion Editorial

See? I can do it too. I can create a sensationalized and misleading headline in order to attract readers. It was the headline from the Washington Post’s June 10 article “After the Riots, Baltimore’s best shot at redemption may be its art community” by Frances Stead Sellers that actually made me catch my breath. Full confession: I didn’t actually puke. I just put that in there to illustrate the power of obnoxious headlines.

Did anyone else feel this way? For a second there, I was so pleasantly surprised, thinking, The Washington Post gets it, the power of the arts to radically improve the city of Baltimore!!! Yes! I was practically fist bumping the air when I saw that headline. But then… I realized I had been duped into reading a completely different article, one that I have read before in different, possibly less well-researched formats.

In its defense, Sellers’ article was substantial and deep, and included a number of images, both in print and online versions, and the timing couldn’t be better for positive press for Baltimore in a national newspaper. However, as soon as I started reading, I felt a familiar ‘Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football’ twinge – dammit, I fell for it again! This article was not about the power of the arts, or actual artists making progress in Baltimore’s multi-faceted healing process – this was another piece about the way arts create a perception of value in real estate and those who capitalize on that value.

If you know me at all or are a regular reader at BmoreArt, you know that I am a fervent believer in the power of the arts and artists to effect positive change at all levels in this city. If you read ‘How Arts Build Community‘ last week, you know I am basing my opinions on critical research and national models that have proven to be effective. When you allow artists already embedded in a community to identify the problems and suggest solutions from within, and then fund their proposals adequately, the positive outcome is deeper and more effective than solutions suggested solely by the business community.

Even a well-meaning and art-aware real estate developer works from a top-down model: they buy the property, develop it, and fill it. There are a number of local business leaders and real estate developers who have invited artists to sit at the decision making table and these collective decisions tend to be the most inclusive, sensitive, and useful to the arts community, and larger community as a whole. Some of these folks were briefly mentioned in this article, but the author didn’t discuss those initiatives or conversations. She focused on real estate in Baltimore’s Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

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I need to reiterate: Sellers wrote a fine piece. She conducted a ton of research and it’s obvious that she spent a copious amount of time in Station North with a variety of movers and shakers there in writing this article. It’s not her fault that some idiot higher-up editor at the Washington Post skimmed her well researched article and assigned it an inaccurate and misleading sensationalized headline. But – this headline IS the article I want to read in mainstream press. It’s the article I continually strive to write and it’s what a large and well-informed audience needs to hear. And this article, as good as it was, was not it.

At this time, I would like to suggest a few alternate titles to this article, in an attempt to accurately represent its content. Which seems most appropriate?

How The Arts Make Real Estate Valuable in Baltimore

I Can’t Believe So Many Real Estate Investors Are Buying Property in Areas So Close to the Baltimore Riots (as they are called in the actual headline) and Freddie Gray’s house. Can you?

A Survey of Baltimore Educational Institutions Investing in Station North

The “New Brooklyn” in Baltimore

Artists make Great Tenants and Customers for Businesses in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District

I’m not saying that these headlines are 100% accurate to the article either, just that they represent Sellers’s ideas more accurately than the one it was given.

Sellers’ article featured a number of Baltimore real estate champions, community non-profit organizations, and area schools in conjunction with “$800 million of investments into the arts district and surrounding neighborhoods in less than a decade” which is credited to the Central Baltimore Partnership, “an alliance of some 60 nonprofits and businesses, educational institutions and government agencies, artists and neighborhood associations.” Although the word ‘artists’ is listed, snuggled between education and neighborhoods, after business and nonprofits, the placement of the word is telling. It almost gets lost, as does the role of artists in this article, where zero artist-run organizations and their achievements are mentioned.

Had the article been presented with a more accurate headline, I would not be writing this … although I do believe that painting real estate developers as ‘saviors’ in this picture, rather than, say, collaborating partners, propagates untrue and unhealthy stereotypes.

Weren’t artists in this district before it was designated an arts district? Do artists need to be saved? If so, from what? Why are the artists and art-entrepreneurs who existed there for a decade or so before this, for example RoyCrosse, Stewart Watson, and Sherwin Mark, unmentioned in this piece? What about The Contemporary’s Victoria Fu show in the Kagro building? What about the countless arts festivals, concerts, and markets that Station North sponsors that include hundreds of artists?

In addition, Sellers repeatedly points out how close Station North is to the arrest of Freddie Gray, and where the consequent unrest, took place, a sign that the significant investments in the area are truly miraculous. Should artists feel lucky that MICA and Johns Hopkins has chosen to invest there, despite certain ‘undesirable’ aspects? She also mentions the nearby methadone clinic and low income housing in the area, but contradicts that image with the Design School, the Montessori Charter, and other real estate investors.

I appreciate that they are important, but are wealthy institutions the only way we can move forward as a city or do artists play a role of significance in this process? Large economic investment is an essential part of the process, but they’re not the only part. Are they?

Heading back to the beginning of the article, I had a hard time with the intro where Brooklyn is named as an inspiring model for a ‘cultural renaissance’ for Station North. Reality check: because of rising rents, due to the perception of value, and actual value, created by artists, there are fewer artists in Brooklyn each year. Artists can’t afford their rents and are getting pushed out. This type of creative migration happens all over the country and I do not want to see it happen in Baltimore.

In my opinion, we should strive to be the Anti-Brooklyn. We should call ourselves the Un-Brooklyn and artists should buy property in arts districts while it’s still affordable and hang onto it, and keep it up to code, in order to really participate as equal partners in the great future ahead of us.

I’m not holding my breath that Sellers will write a follow up piece to this article where she delves deep into the number of artist-run and artist-centric organizations that have created increased cultural and economic value in Station North and other parts of Baltimore, but I am hoping she will. Baltimore could use more positive press in the mainstream media and there are so many amazing artists and arts organizations who have helped lead this transformation from the beginning – this is the story we all need to hear.

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