At the Expressions Gala, the Baltimore School for the Art’s beloved annual event, guests arrived in the chilly air in furs and puffy coats, embellished jean jackets and boldly patterned trench coats, with beautiful gowns and suits underneath, as well as more creative and casual sartorial ensembles. No matter what they were wearing, each guest arrived with the pride of supporting one of Baltimore’s greatest artistic success stories and their excitement was palpable.
For those who have never attended, the BSA Gala is an experience unlike any other in town. Imagine the Grammys, complete with red carpet and paparazzi, but where the creative genius of high school students—musicians, singers, visual artists, dancers—has been polished so expertly their performances could rival any professional performer or artist. A cherished cultural gem, the BSA has produced notable success stories like musician Tupac Shakur, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, fashion designer Christian Siriano, artists Sara VanDerBeek and Shinique Smith, and songwriter Makeba Riddick, among others.
The four-year public high school for the arts which admits students from every single Baltimore neighborhood and selects based upon potential shown in portfolios and auditions—not previous academics—is a success story in itself, founded in 1979 and built by innovative cultural leaders who rallied philanthropic support for the school. The school provides training in five disciplines: music (vocal/instrumental), visual arts, theatre (acting/stage design and production), dance, or film, in combination with a comprehensive, college preparatory academic education. The school serves as a huge resource in Baltimore and offers all kinds of performances, workshops, and TWIGS, an after-school arts training program for 2nd-8th graders in Baltimore.
The annual Expressions Gala, hosted over an entire weekend with programming designed for families, communities, and a Saturday night Gala, is a favorite attended every year by Baltimore’s cultural leaders, philanthropists, BSA alumni, and supporters of the arts. The event has become an institution in itself, and even the threat of the coronavirus wasn’t enough to deter 500+ guests who arrived for cocktails, a seated performance of music and dance, and then a free-for-all where guests roamed throughout the Mount Vernon-based school, where bars and different buffets of food were arranged throughout the space along with hands-on activities, a karaoke lounge, art demonstrations, dancing lessons, and more.
The BSA is housed in two beautiful, historically significant Mount Vernon buildings on Cathedral Street: the former Alcazar Hotel and Ballroom (1924) and the former Graham House, (1850) home of William H. Graham, the son-in-law of the second chairman of Alex Brown & Sons financial institutions, George Brown. The school now offers large studio classrooms, media labs, dance studios, a huge multimedia library, as well as the historic ballroom. Rich with architectural detail, this year’s Expressions transformed the entire space into a dramatic and colorful naturescape, full of giant paper flowers embellished with gold, and punctuated by amazing lights in warm neons and purpley blues that make you feel like you’re emerging into new worlds of color and mood.
Lots of fancy art parties are skimpy on the food and heavy on the fundraising aspect, but this was not the case at BSA, where Classic Catering offered such a wide array of dinner and dessert options it was overwhelming. As we wandered through the labyrinthine hallways and staircases, we found too many bar stations and food options to even consider, and guests milled from floor to floor, from activities to performances, stopping to chat and take photos with familiar faces.
Much of the energy in the space came from knowing that this school is host to a staggering amount of young talent which represents the future of Baltimore, and a reputation solidly built upon past success. For anyone considering a $400 ticket to next year’s BSA Expressions Gala, it’s a great investment in the future of the art of your place and time and well worth it.
Words: Cara Ober
Paparazzi Photos: E. Brady Robinson
Event Photos: Jill Fannon and E. Brady Robinson