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New Creative Alliance Director on Authentic Relationships and Art’s Transformative Power

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Creative Alliance’s new director, Gregory S. Smith, understands his audience. “No arts organization exists on its own. It has to have people to support it, who are passionate about what they’re seeing, who are seeing themselves being reflected in the work,” Smith says. 

After almost a year’s search, Creative Alliance announced its new executive director this week. Just a few days ago, Smith drove from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Baltimore to take the reins of the art space and community center in Highlandtown. 

Smith brings with him two decades of experience in arts nonprofit and business management, including fundraising and executive operations as well as arts programming and education. He most recently worked at Minnesota Public Radio for seven years, producing events at the Fitzgerald Theater and other community spaces. (MPR sold the Fitzgerald in 2018.) 

In an interview, Smith says Baltimore’s creativity and ingenuity reminds him of the Twin Cities, which he describes as “a very rich arts center” housing an array of small DIY operations to large institutions. Smith had only been to Baltimore a couple of times in the past, and interviewing for this role at Creative Alliance allowed him to see more than the touristy parts. One of his first goals as executive director, he says, is to get to know Baltimore and the neighborhood of Highlandtown, to “develop a sense of that community feel.” 

 

Tianquiztli outside of Creative Alliance, September 2021

Having been on the job for just a few days, Smith is quick to note the work and learning ahead of him. He aims to deepen Creative Alliance’s current partnerships with local organizations and communities, and to forge new ones, to find the “voices that aren’t being heard currently, and being able to support them and shine a light on them, giving them a little water so they can grow.” 

Born in North Carolina, Smith was an artist before he was an arts administrator. As an actor and director, his work “was always through the lens of social justice and social action, bringing people together and utilizing theater as a safe space to have challenging conversations.” He had to stop performing after developing pneumonia, which affected his ability to vocally project. “It was really unfortunate that I couldn’t perform anymore because I love being on stage,” he says. But he had always been interested in arts education, as well as the business and administrative side of arts organizations, so he leaned into that. 

He has worked from the bottom up at several organizations too, he says, which allowed him to see the importance of every role—from front-of-house staff to fundraising to education to production—in supporting the whole organization. 

From 2003 to 2007, Smith worked at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis as Director of Education, which was “where I really cut my teeth on the idea of incorporating the arts in social justice,” he says. He cites Artistic Director Peter Brosius, from whom he learned that the arts should never pander to its audience, that it should challenge them and take them on a journey. “Those things have really become centralized in my thinking about how we produce work,” Smith says. “We should tell amazing stories about different lands, different countries, different experiences, that maybe we in our own insular world don’t get a chance to experience. And being in control of your own narrative is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself.”

 

A view of the new Creativity Center under construction, 2021

Working as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Director of Audience Development from 2010-2012 was likewise instructive in using the arts to generate challenging conversations. Smith mentions the Denver Center’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, which included an exhibition and community conversations alongside the performance. During the planning of the programming, he learned that Denver had a history with the KKK, and the Denver library backed this up, with images from this era of civil unrest, including pictures of the KKK and civil rights protests. At the same time, he learned about a recently uncovered archive of civil rights-era photos in the basement of the Birmingham News in Alabama. “We were able to request many of those images, and we did an exhibition that transposed the civil rights era from Alabama against what was happening in Denver,” Smith says. It connected audiences with history in a tangible and personal way, showing how enmeshed white supremacy—and resistance to it—is in every place. “There were different touch points that we tried to utilize so that people can come in and take the issues beyond the play and incorporate them into what’s happening in their worlds currently,” Smith says.

This approach tracks with Creative Alliance’s mission. Founded by volunteers Margaret Footner, Megan Hamilton, and Dan Schiavone at the end of 1994, Creative Alliance has been steadily growing ever since, now with a more robust (and paid) staff. From the start, the organization aimed to be an anchor for Baltimore 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,” Footner told me last summer for an article about the organization’s evolution. 

Footner stepped down as Creative Alliance’s executive director in 2018, becoming Director of Special Projects, and Gina Caruso took the helm until March 2021. Doreen Bolger, the outgoing Board chair and part of the executive director search committee, said in a press release that Smith “arrives at such a thrilling time in the Creative Alliance’s history. For twenty-six years, the Creative Alliance has celebrated the transformative power of the arts and community in Baltimore.… Gregory is a positive and collaborative leader. The board and I are confident that Gregory’s warmth, collegial and collaborative style, and passion for making the arts accessible for all people will endear him to staff, artists, communities, volunteers, board, and donors.”

 

This is another period of growth for Creative Alliance, which already does so much as a performance venue, exhibition space, artist residency, and community center with landmark public events and programs. Each of these facets is critical to building community for Creative Alliance, but its education and youth programs will be able to expand with its new Creativity Center. Expected to open this fall, the new building on the other side of Eastern Avenue will feature a community arts room, teaching kitchen, two classrooms, and a dance studio.

“I firmly always believe in the power of arts education and arts-infused learning,” Smith says. “Kids don’t always learn just from rote. So if you can find a creative way to spark a kid’s imagination, and give them a different pathway to learning, that’s really important.”

The organization continues to weather the pandemic and adapt its programming to fluctuating COVID numbers. The staff’s ability to pivot from crowded shows pre-pandemic to virtual and outdoor programming impressed Smith. “I’m very fortunate to walk into a situation where people are very passionate about the work, about the Alliance, and really believe in the power of the arts to transform,” he says.

Creative Alliance has come through the pandemic financially stable so far, according to the board. The only way an organization like Creative Alliance could do so is by forming genuine connections with its community through art that engages people and keeps them coming back. “We serve at the behest of the community,” Smith says, “so it behooves us to make sure that we’re reaching out to as many people in the community as we can. And it’s not that we’re going out and saying, ‘we’re going to do this for you’—it’s about a partnership.”

 

Images courtesy of Creative Alliance

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