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Growing Roots: Creative Alliance at 26

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When it was only a seedling in the early 1990s, the magnanimous multi-use art space recognized today as the Creative Alliance was then a modest independent gallery called Halcyon, situated above Margaret Footner’s Fells Point cafe. Six months in business, Footner ran into Megan Hamilton, a Baltimore City Paper art critic, and asked whether she knew anyone who could help run a gallery above the restaurant. Hamilton returned with the painter Dan Schiavone, and they established Halcyon Gallery to exhibit and sell the work of local artists.

The key there was “local,” which at the time was basically a pejorative. While today it seems bizarre that Baltimore institutions would effectively ignore local art, many artists in the 1980s and ‘90s staged creative interventions to get institutions to pay more attention to the local scene. In those days, there were even fewer places to see and exhibit art than there are today—you could see your friend’s show in a house gallery, sure, but not at a museum.

With that in mind, Footner, Hamilton, and Schiavone wanted Creative Alliance to be a place where artists could set roots, and the organization has spent more than two decades deliberately building community with all kinds of bombast. Part of this is accomplished through landmark annual events, like the spectacular Great Halloween Lantern Parade in Patterson Park; the Día de los Muertos celebration; a big-tent, salon-style members show; a gala that all but requires absurd, thematic dress-up, and more. The exhibition space features rigorous shows throughout the year, and the theater regularly hosts music and performances as diverse as, say, indigenous Hawaiian folk music, Klezmer dance parties, and Tuareg guitar music alongside local R&B performances, burlesque and drag shows, and screenings of Baltimore-made films. To accommodate such a wide variety of programming, Creative Alliance has always been branching out and growing towards the light.

 

Marquee Ball 2019: OZ (photo by Rob Clatterbuck)
We wanted to create a community around the arts, and we wanted to make the arts a part of community—a part of everyday life and not so scary and rarefied for most people.
Margaret Footner

Halcyon Gallery put on shows in the cafe and other Fells Point spaces for about two years, displaying work by Dan Van Allen, David Franks, Susan Lowe, and others, but low gallery sales prompted reflection for the trio. “We looked at each other and we said, ‘We’re never gonna make any money at this; our ideas are bigger than the walls of this gallery,’” says Footner. “So we talked about our ideas, which were that we wanted to showcase local artists, we wanted to create a community around the arts, and we wanted to make the arts a part of community—a part of everyday life and not so scary and rarefied for most people.” It would be multidisciplinary and fertile for collaboration; it would appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds; it would spark pride in Baltimore’s creative community. And there, the Fells Point Creative Alliance was born in late 1994.

To lay the foundation, Fells Point Creative Alliance sent a letter to a hundred or so people, mostly artists, asking them to become members, promising resources, support, and the opportunity to exhibit in The BIG Show, an annual, inclusive, members-only exhibition displaying both emerging and established artists. Eighty or so artists mailed in membership checks, and what the co-founders called a “major donation” came from photographer Amalie Rothschild—a check for $150. “I thought I would fall over, I was so excited,” says Hamilton. The first BIG Show encouraged neighborhood wandering, with work installed in bookshops, cafes, bars, and restaurants around Fells.

The early Creative Alliance invested in artists right away, organizing performances, screenings, youth education programs, critiques, lectures, and life-drawing sessions. From 1994 to 2003, the organization was continually expanding even while semi-nomadic, using the former Moose Lodge that Schiavone had renovated into a studio as a performance venue, and in 2000 working from a former Pep Boys auto store on Conkling Street—at which point, digging into Highlandtown, the team dropped “Fells Point” from the name. Before Schiavone left in 1999, he recruited sculptor/curator Jed Dodds, who became Artistic Director, curating exhibitions, events, and performances.

 

The Great Halloween Lantern Parade and Festival, photo courtesy Creative Alliance

That same year, film and video artist Kristen Anchor became the founding director of the Creative Alliance Movie Makers program, which ran until 2012 and offered workshops, networking, equipment rentals, and screening opportunities. Meanwhile, education director Linda DePalma was developing and ramping up the organization’s school- and library-based programs, temporarily storing art supplies in her own studio because there wasn’t room at the Pep Boys office. Somewhere between using the Moose Lodge and the Pep Boys, as Creative Alliance established itself as a community art space, the idea that it could secure a forever home and do more of what it was already doing became realistic.

Hamilton remembers a popular soundbite of former State Senator Perry Sfikas, an early Creative Alliance board member: “I won’t let the lights go out in Highlandtown.” By the early 1990s, Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods like Highlandtown and Patterson Park had been emptying for years, partly due to white flight and the closure of steel and auto factories and the subsequent slow decline of industry in the area. But residents who remained, those who moved in, and politicians like Sfikas who represented these areas were eager to bring people back.

Through the mid-1990s, community organizations, such as Edward Rutkowski’s Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, were buying properties to reclaim local ownership of and investment in the area. Rutkowski came to Footner and Hamilton with an idea for a parade to enliven Patterson Park at night. Footner and Hamilton were excited about the lantern parades that Molly Ross, Dodds’ wife, created and so the first Great Halloween Lantern Parade and Festival in 2000 lit up the park, drawing about 500 attendees. The Lantern Parade remains a cornerstone annual event with glowing puppets, community- and artist-made lanterns, floats and costumes, performances, food, music, an artist market, and more, regularly drawing thousands from all over the city.

Creative Alliance wanted to build upon its successes. Sfikas was so enthralled by the idea of an art space reanimating the iconic (but vacant) Patterson Theater that he arranged for Footner and Hamilton to test the idea through meetings with neighborhood residents, business owners, and community organizations—as well as US Senator Barbara Mikulski (who was raised in Highlandtown) and Maryland Governor Parris Glendening. “They were just as excited as we were and they believed in our ideas, which was totally nuts,” Footner says. “Perry saw what we had done, and he felt like we could do more.”

 

Mara Neimanis performs on BUS sculpture outside of CA, 2015 (photo by Heather Keating)

Mikulski and Sfikas helped secure funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the State of Maryland’s “Smart Growth” bonds. In 1998, the Southeast Community Development Corporation became a partner and worked with Creative Alliance on the capital campaign, project design, budgeting, and construction management. The Patterson, a movie theater that had closed in 1995, was purchased in 1998 for $250,000 and renovated for $4.1 million. With state and federal funds, as well as funding from foundations and individual donors, Creative Alliance assumed ownership of the Patterson and opened it in 2003 with two galleries, a 200-seat theater, eight artist live/work spaces, a restaurant/bar, a classroom, a media lab, and offices. The legendary neon marquee was replicated and then re-lit.

Along with support from neighbors and politicians, Creative Alliance had people like John Waters and his Dreamland cast and crew on its side from the start, along with other like-minded artists and producers who shared the dialectical goal of examining and celebrating Baltimore’s grit, “but doing it with an intellectual edge,” says Dodds. He compares Creative Alliance’s ethos with that of the nomadic Contemporary Museum, where he worked from 1992 to 1996, which “had pioneered this concept of embedding itself into a community for a couple of months and doing a deep dive into the history of that place, and seeing how an art program” could spark conversation and connection. “Creative Alliance felt like it was taking that notion and applying it on a permanent basis to a specific community,” Dodds says.

Dodds helped design Creative Alliance’s popular artist residency program, which presently houses up to eight artists at once for a period of one to three years. Over almost twenty years, a mixture of local and non-local resident artists have included aerial performer Mara Neimanis, beatboxer/musician Shodekeh, and visual artists Jackie Milad, Zoë Charlton, Paul Rucker, René Treviño, Francisco Loza, and perhaps most famously, Amy Sherald.

Being able to meet resident artists and tour their studios was one of many influences on New York-based/Baltimore-raised artist Terry Kenard Barnes, who attended a Southeast Youth Academy after-school program in partnership with Creative Alliance in 2002, in the sixth grade. While a student at Baltimore School for the Arts, Barnes began taking on jobs at Creative Alliance, starting with changing out the marquee weekly, then working as an exhibition assistant, teaching assistant, teaching artist, front-desk and event staff, among other jobs. Working behind the scenes offered a valuable glimpse of how a creative nonprofit can run with a strong team behind it. Along with peers and Barnes’ mom, Creative Alliance staff helped him apply for college and prepare for the next steps. “They all became family,” Barnes says.

From the start, Footner was particularly keen to build Creative Alliance as an integral part of the community. When DePalma started as Education Director in 1999, a program called Open Minds was serving just five children. With the work of teaching assistants Karen Summerville and Rachel Rush, the department grew to serve around 2,400 young people through education programs and festivals by 2014, a year after DePalma retired. Rush, now the education coordinator, says the department currently serves around 4,500.

The multidisciplinary youth programs are free for participants and led by trained art teachers. About five public schools in Highlandtown and Patterson Park, as well as the Patterson Park and Southeast Anchor libraries, are current partners of the Open Minds Art Clubs. Two large after-school programs, managed by Kammeran Tyree Giggers at Tench Tilghman and John Ruhrah elementary schools, reach approximately 75 students each with homework help, art and culture workshops, exercise, and food. On weekends, Creative Alliance hosts Kerplunk, a drop-in program for kids and their families to come in and make art based on the current exhibition.

 

Artesanas of Creative Alliance at the 2020 Great Halloween & Dia de los Muertos Car Parade (photo by Micah E. Wood)

Maintaining an authentic community presence requires multitudinous efforts, especially as the neighborhood changes. Highlandtown has long been known as a working-class neighborhood of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Poland, Ireland, and Greece. It was also racially segregated roughly until the period after World War II, when Lumbee Indians and Black folks began moving into Highlandtown and surrounding areas—many in search of nearby factory jobs. After peaks and valleys of density and development throughout the decades, today Highlandtown is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. According to the health department, from 1990 to 2008, Baltimore’s overall population declined by 13 percent, but the Latino population increased by more than 50 percent. Many resettled in southeast neighborhoods like Highlandtown, where Latinos comprise about 30 percent of the population.

“Creative Alliance was doing its best to broker all of those conversations and help the neighborhood evolve in a healthy way,” says Dodds, who left the organization in 2012 to direct the Studios of Key West. “It is a lot to ask of an arts organization. I think we did pretty well.”

Playwright and educator Luisa Bieri de Rios’ play, Belongings, was instrumental in the expansion of Creative Alliance’s community outreach. A 2006 Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow, Bieri de Rios interviewed Highlandtown residents about what made them feel like they belong, culminating with the play which featured a mix of actors and neighbors telling their own stories. One story involved a man who had walked through the desert from El Salvador to Arizona—he kept the broken shoes he wore and displayed them in the gallery outside the theater. “It was a way of making very concrete the different pathways that people had found to come together in that one particular neighborhood,” Dodds recalls.

Cheryl Casciani, a board member since 2004, says Belongings left a clear impression that they needed to build community outreach into the budget. “You couldn’t do that play without a person to dig in, go out, talk to people, knock on some doors, sit on some stoops, organize,” Casciani says.

 

About Face featuring Amy Sherald, Rozeal, Tim Okamura, and Ebony G. Patterson, 2016 (photo by Rob Clatterbuck)
On the Verge: 25 New and Emerging Artists, 2020, curated by Thomas James, artists pictured: Italo Duarte, Jani Hileman, Alex Schechter, Sara Dittrich, Charles Mason III, Taha Heydari, Alexis Gomez, Amani Lewis, and Kyle D. Yearwood (photo by Rob Clatterbuck)

Ari Pluznik, the current Community Arts and Volunteer Program Manager, describes his department’s role as being a bridge between the Creative Alliance staff and the city’s multicultural communities, working with artists, leaders, and neighbors. Along with programming and organizing Creative Alliance’s major events, Pluznik manages relationships with neighborhood groups including the Southeast Community Development Corporation, Friends of Patterson Park, and Komité Ayiti, a grassroots advocacy group for the city’s Haitian community.

A priority, Pluznik says, “is trying to help in ways that you’re actually wanted to help and would actually be helpful, not what you think would be helpful.” He gives this summer’s Juneteenth event as an example: The organization commissioned musician Rachel Winder to create a 10-minute original composition with her band to commemorate Juneteenth and curate a free concert and festival at Whitelock Community Farm. To live up to Creative Alliance’s mission as a multicultural community space, “what you want is to actually give real deciding power to people in programming,” Pluznik says.

For the team behind Creative Alliance, building trust is an ongoing process. At this point, loyal attendees can typically count on a good show in the Patterson. When Josh Kohn took over Hamilton’s job as performance director in 2014, there was a built-in audience, but there continues to be room to grow and communities to reach. “It’s about building affinity groups for each show,” Kohn says.

 

Stiltwalkers at the Great Halloween Lantern Parade and Festival, 2013 (photo by Justin Tsucalas)
Dan Van Allen's owl lantern created for the Great Halloween Lantern Parade and Festival, 2013 (photo by Justin Tsucalas)

This work is always in motion, and it also requires the logistical challenge of doing more, which is why this summer, Creative Alliance broke ground at the future site of its new building right across the street from the Patterson. Expected to open in the fall of 2022, the 6,300-square-foot Creativity Center will house a community arts room, teaching kitchen, two classrooms, and a dance studio.

Fundraising for the new building paused during the pandemic while staff did what they could to respond to the crisis and continue to function as a venue. Exhibitions, screenings, and performances largely went online. The Lantern Parade turned into a car parade around the park. The in-person, social-distanced Sidewalk Serenades series was wildly popular: They booked more than 500 sidewalk concerts featuring local musicians across the city, which incidentally put Creative Alliance in front of people who’d never been in the Patterson, Kohn says.

Creative Alliance restarted fundraising for the Creativity Center earlier this year. “Financially, we emerged really strong [from the pandemic],” Casciani says, thanks to grants and gifts. “You realize the benefits of being around for 25 years and having developed this deep well of support, because when we needed it, it was there.”

That goes both ways, which is why the organization feels the need to not only stick around but to expand. As its connection with the neighborhood grows, so does the need for community input, fortified structure, and nimble adaptation.

For Yesenia Mejia, director of CIELO (which means sky and also stands for Creative Immigrant Educators of Latin American Origin), organizing Creative Alliance’s Latin-American programs helps her connect with her roots. She has been away from her home of Oaxaca for most of her life, and found connection in this place, making corn husk flowers, paper cempasuchil flowers, papel picado, and piñatas, and organizing events for Día de los Muertos, Posadas, and Special Day with Mama.

Mejia first went to Creative Alliance in 2013 to help former resident artist Francisco Loza with a workshop. Mejia knew about Artesanas, the traditional art apprenticeship program, which was there hosting a piñata workshop. She attended Artesanas’ next workshop, and kept going back, becoming an apprentice and then a master. Soon she was teaching in the Open Minds Art Clubs and Kerplunk, and helping produce and design 2,000 lanterns for the Lantern Parade. She helped coordinate Artesanitos, the youth program, and later became the Artesanas program coordinator. Founded in 2019, CIELO houses three main programs—Artesanas; Nikandii, a folk-music program for youth, and Jóvenes en Acción, a folkloric dance program for teens—along with an artist market, Tianquiztli.

Before the pandemic, Mejia took the lead on a Día de los Muertos event. Starting in Patterson Park with a mariachi band, a group of about 50 people gathered, and as they proceeded to Creative Alliance, more people joined. “The whole building—the Marquee lounge, the first gallery, the theater, the second floor—was packed. But it was so smoothly run because everybody was helping and supporting,” Mejia recalls. “It was like being in Mexico that day.”

That celebration is a useful illustration of Creative Alliance’s whole ethos: that a person or program—or a small, scrappy collection of them—can instigate a potentially exponential cycle of propagation. “You start something, they see it, and more people start doing it, and that’s the goal,” says Mejia. “That’s my mission—let’s divide ourselves into more.”

 

Arooj Aftab performs at kick-off event for 2017 Nisa'a/Women program, image courtesy of Creative Alliance

Photography courtesy of the Creative Alliance. Header image: Creative Alliance marquee at sunset (photo by Heather Keating)

This story is from Issue 12: More is More,

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