Baltimore’s New, Affordable Creative Hub Offers Questions and Answers

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Inside Creative Labs by Thea Harvey-Brown

The closures of Bell Foundry and Floristree suggested a grim outlook for Batlimore’s DIY arts scene. However, Creative Labs is a new space working to preserve the for-artists-by-artists tenet that drives collectives.

Situated in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse, Creative Labs is an incubator of experimentation, designed to house affordable artist studios and creative projects. The space offers multiple studios, a runway and stage, various work stations – including a virtual reality and digital imaging studio – and a structural façade that’s very much in flux, shapeshifting in accordance with business demands and artistic impulses. The warehouse is also available for product launches, digital imaging, fashion shows, and other commercial enterprises, at rentals that will help subsidize its artistic program.

At first I was wary if its title, which sounds a bit like an industrial enterprise hoping to cash in on a hipsterized co-working market. But Creative Labs is hardly commercial, only to the extent that it requires for sustainability, and it stands as an important model in this increasingly commercial city. There’s a generative ethos at Creative Labs, which informs both its creative efforts and its business model. It’s a place where people are constantly creating and consuming, and the latter doesn’t trump or direct the former.

Last Saturday, the warehouse held the Creative Labs Fall Ball, which included an ensemble of three comedians, a fashion show, multiple gallery open houses, virtual reality art battles, a fire performance, and three music sets. The result was a unique melding of many disparate styles, where the VR world sits side-by-side with wall-friendly paintings, and a glam fashion show follows a crude comedy set.

I spoke with Michael Metcalf and Richard Best, the two co-founders and impresarios of Creative Labs.

Section1, the creative Development Firm that heads Creative Labs, was born out of Richard’s Design Leadership thesis at MICA and Hopkins. “The original goal of Section1 was to help sustain creatives, provide access to time and resources or the support in the community to help them focus on their passions. the original concept was let’s build this art park and bring in a bunch of artists,” explains Metcalf.

The park initiative is still in progress, but it’s gotten delayed by a number of legal roadblocks between property owners and city codes. And fundraising for the disposition of city-owned property isn’t exactly a sexy ask.

Creative Labs emerged, in part, as a response to some of the issues that the development of the art park helped bring to surface. “As we grew, we faced these challenges,” he says. “We have to eat, we have to survive, we have to live, and we have to find this balance between our passions and working, and that’s a huge struggle, especially for a lot of creatives who aren’t necessarily business-minded, and often exploited. The concept of the starving artist is very much in our lexicon, which kind of echoes all these problems that we face in pursuit of mastering our craft.

“The art park probably won’t happen for three or four years. I think it’s more important to provide a model or means to help artists sustain their lives professionally than it is to just create a platform for them to be showcased. They definitely need both. And I think we have an interesting solution to that, so we’re working on building it.”

That all sounds good, but the experiment raises a few more questions. First: do artists need to starve in order to be creative? This is a long-held trope, and it is not without some historical foundation. Consider Van Gogh cutting off his ear, Beethoven going deaf, Michelangelo’s many crises, the unstoppable impulses of Jack Kerouac.

Second: making a creative space cheap does not eliminate the requirement to be selective. For every good or great artist, there are dozens of people who should properly keep their talents marked down as hobbies, and even (or especially) the good people at Section1 will have to draw that line. The low-cost space provided by Section1 will have to be parceled out by some arbiters of aesthetic work. There is no way around making these judgments without wiping out the mission.

Third: Artists need cheap space—but they also need a vibrant and creative community, and creative communities tend to drive prices up. Brooklyn used to be the cheap part of New York, where creative people could live for a pittance. Not so much anymore. Oakland did this for San Francisco—until it, too, go overwhelmed. Mayor Catherine Pugh likes to talk about the “vibrancy” that these creative institutions bring, but they’re also handmaidens of commerce, and artists aren’t always the beneficiaries. This is the core tension of the creative industry: artists make unaffordable exactly what attracted them in the first place. Their worth becomes the weapon used against them.

Section1 challenges this system by keeping most of the equity internal. “The new model we’re building will be in the form of a benefit corporation, which will be member-owned,” Best explains. “So, there will be investment opportunities for artists to own a piece of this company. A portion of the business will be open to outside investors, and to begin with it’s only going to be open to impact investors – foundations, art philanthropists, that kind of thing. It’ll hopefully set the gold standard of how art management and impact investing in the creative world is done.”

Baltimore may have a special advantage in this realm, because it is big enough and complex, with lots of cheap but interesting space and it has not been taken over by financiers or tech companies, so it can offer any number of diverse neighborhoods without crazy price inflation.

And finally: Section 1 needs to succeed in developing and carrying out its own business model. It has to pay for space, utilities, fixtures, insurance, labor, cleaning, and the like. This is tough going, and will get tougher if their existence inspires a mini-wave of gentrification. Managing the space will create inevitable tension between finding artists who can help their own way, and those who are more talented but also more broke. Accountants will be sitting side-by-side with art critics in making this thing work. But it’s a strong step – and potentially a scalable model – toward building consistent structural support for independent artists.

Their next event, Halloween: Night of the Masquerade, will be held Tuesday, October 31st, from 8 PM – 1:30 AM.

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