2022 Sondheim Semi-Finalists at School 33 Art Center

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School 33 has long been one of Baltimore’s premier venues for contemporary art. When I first encountered the space in the early 2000s, it was considered one of the “Big Three” Baltimore nonprofit exhibition spaces, along with Maryland Art Place and Creative Alliance. However, over the past few years, there has been no dedicated curator at the space, nor any exhibitions—until now, with the smartly curated 2022 Sondheim Semi-Finalist Exhibition, up through October 30, 2022.

School 33 is located in a historic brick and brownstone school building built in 1890 in what is now Federal Hill. Formerly known as Public School 33, it functioned as an elementary school until 1975, when the school moved to a new building just a few blocks away. After a few years of vacancy, it was established in 1979 as a center for contemporary art, based on the famed New York institution MoMA P.S.1, an “alternative space” for exhibiting cutting-edge contemporary art, as well as offering approximately ten large, light-filled studios for Baltimore-based artists.


School 33 Art Center in South Baltimore


School 33’s location in Federal Hill has always been a challenge for those of us more comfortable in Mount Vernon and Station North, and Friday night parking during a downtown sporting event (before the existence of Uber and Lyft) was frequently a nightmare. However, upon entering its spacious galleries, replete with clean white walls, gleaming wooden floors, choice gallery lighting, and excellent curation, the journey always proved worthwhile.

For so many visual artists in the Baltimore region, School 33 has offered their first opportunity at a solo, group, or juried show in a space with clout and professionalism. Most importantly, it offered artists an opportunity to apply for these exhibits for free, or sometimes with a low juror’s fee, and you could propose an exhibit as part of this process or apply to be included in a thematic group show juried by a well-respected curator. In addition, School 33 mounted a biennial exhibition of studio resident artists with a catalog. It currently boasts a significant list of artist-residents including Kim Rice, Taha Heydari, Emma Childs, and others poised for national careers.


Works by Marybeth Chew, David Page, Katiana Weems, and Sue Crawford
Works by Travis Levasseur

If you have never been to School 33 Art Center or even heard of it, it’s understandable. The gallery has been on hiatus since the pandemic closed its doors in 2020, until now, with the 2022 Sondheim Semi-Finalist Exhibition. This exhibit has long been a community favorite element of Artscape and was formerly mounted in MICA’s Decker and Meyerhoff galleries during the festival. This year, BOPA staff member Lou Joseph did an excellent job designing both the exhibit of 2022 Finalists at the Walters and Semi-Finalists at School 33 to function as group exhibits comprised of succinct bodies of work by each artist.

Like this year’s exhibit of finalists at the Walters, the 2022 Semi-Finalists exhibit is smaller than past iterations, but this one is, in my opinion, one of the best. It includes work by Tommy Bobo, Marybeth Chew, Sue Crawford, Andrew Gray, David Page, Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, Katiana Weems, Travis Levasseur, Mojdeh Rezaeipour, and Amber Robles-Gordon, flowing seamlessly between upstairs and downstairs galleries, with each artist given enough space for their curated body of work to really shine.

The destination is maintained by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) and even before the pandemic, it seems to have fallen off the radar. Under the direction of the last full-time exhibitions coordinator of School 33, Melissa Webb, the space boasted a vast array of monthly exhibitions and programs from 2014-2019. However, when Webb left the post to attend graduate school at Cranbrook in 2019, her position was never filled, although the exhibits she had planned for the following year were enacted by other BOPA staff members.

Before Webb, School 33 was run by René Treviño from 2009-2014, and it flourished as a space for the best contemporary art and collaborative experiments in Baltimore. It hosted an annual fundraiser called Lotta Art (a hybrid art lottery and auction), offered opening receptions on a regular basis, and won a prestigious Rauschenberg Grant for $100,000 in 2012 to promote collaborative artist installations onsite that were supposed to remain permanently there, but only one still exists.

I had forgotten so much of this—all these years of excellent contemporary art—until I scheduled a visit this fall. Walking through this year’s Sondheim Semi-Finalist Exhibition, a variety of memories came flooding back to me.

I remember applying as an artist for exhibits in the early 2000s while still a grad student at MICA. I was bitterly disappointed when I was rejected for a group exhibition, and so jealous that my friend, Seth Adelsberger, was selected. In many ways, School 33 marked the start of a serious art career and I understood the competitive nature of this process as a challenge and goal. I ended up reviewing the show for the Baltimore City Paper anyway, recalling it was juried by art critic Ingrid Shaffner.

I remember falling in love with the Jonathan Latiano/Jennifer Strunge Rauschenberg Foundation-funded collaboration, still installed in a stairwell and beckoning like a crisp white Star-Wars-inspired tentacled monster. I remember serving as a visiting critic with School 33 resident artists, delivering a professional development slide talk, and writing a catalog essay about all of them for that year’s biennial. I remember bringing countless curators and collectors to the space, including MICA President Sammy Hoi, JHU President Ron Daniels, internationally known collector Mera Rubell, and Christopher Bedford, when he first became the director at the BMA, showing them the galleries as well conducting studio visits with several of the artists.

Most of all, I remember the art. The space is perfect, in terms of showcasing a wide and diverse variety of contemporary art. Video, installation, sculpture, and immersive environments all work well here because the space is so versatile, both humble and clean with few visual distractions and high ceilings. Traditional 2D work looks great here too, offering artists an opportunity to have their work hang alongside their peers in a space that is flexible and eminently photographable. It’s large enough for expansive group shows, but also the perfect size and scale for a two-person exhibition, a valuable rarity in Baltimore for emerging and mid-career artists.


Marybeth Chew
Mojdeh Rezaeipour
Sue Crawford
Amber Robles-Gordon

When I visited School 33 this fall, for the first time in at least three years, I was excited, not just for the art, but to see this premier exhibition space finally activated again. Based on selections by Sondheim jurors Catherine Morris, Kambui Olujimi, and Jean Shin, who also picked the finalists and winner, the gallery was brimming with an odd assortment of contemporary art given just enough space to create a discourse about the future of visual art in this region, and to offer signals about what is coming.

In the main gallery, large sculptural works by David Page dominate the center, balancing the artist’s ability to create menacing structures tempered by fine craftsmanship in leather and fabric. Surrounding Page, exuberant maximalist tableaus and mosaics by Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, a MICA MFA graduate who has spent the last decade in DC, unfold and beckon to delicate pattern-based works by Sue Crawford, expressive documentary video by Katiana Weems, and Marybeth Chew’s color-filled, watercolor grids cheekily reminiscent of comic books. Across the gallery, solemn portraits by Andrew Gray, influenced by graphic design and typography, claim enough space for their subtle surfaces to reveal themselves. And in the darkened back gallery space containing an installation by Tommy Bobo, a wild whirl of motion, metallics, and color invites you to enter and become a part of the action.


Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann
Katiana Weems
Tommy Bobo
Andrew Gray

Upstairs, what was formerly the project space for School 33 members offers an intimate viewing room for video and wood-burnt drawings by DC-based Mojdeh Rezaeipour. And in the main gallery, mixed-media collage by Amber Robles-Gordon offers a taste of the much larger tapestry works the artist has become known for, incorporating the colors and textures of her native Puerto Rico into quilt-like dreams. A large, multi-part installation by Travis Levasseur incorporates projected animation depicting a tongue-in-cheek survivalist-corporate future, a large wooden cabinet of curiosities and blinking lights, and a tabletop diorama combining aspects of idealistic model train environments with elements of doomsday prep.

The entire show is fantastic and confounding, and well worth a visit. I missed the opening reception with the artists, and I regret not being there because, quite frankly, it’s a selection of innovative, highly professional individuals on track for much bigger careers.

One of the best parts of being in Baltimore is scouting out emerging talent and seeing their ideas and output evolve with each subsequent exhibition, especially in spaces dedicated to showcasing visual art. Historically, this has been one of the best and most important parts of School 33’s exhibits and programs. At this point, there is no publicly listed schedule for subsequent exhibits planned for the School 33 galleries after the Sondheim Semi-Finalist show, and for me, this is a real disappointment.

When I reached out for more information, Jocquelyn Downs, BOPA’s Arts Council Director, responded enthusiastically, saying “We are excited to have S33’s doors open again and to see what the future holds for this beloved space.” Downs says that BOPA is planning to utilize the building for multiple programs including Sondheim, the Travel Prize, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Open Studio Tour, and a School 33 resident artist exhibition curated by Kirk Shannon-Butts, BOPA’s Public Art and Curation Manger.

Downs noted that BOPA has been curating exhibitions at the Bromo Tower and Top of the World, two other properties that BOPA manages, and that this year marks the first time they have had a “full exhibition schedule” since the pandemic started.

While I look forward to more information and dates to be announced, I think we can all agree that it is imperative for School 33 to operate as the significant cornerstone of Baltimore’s art ecosystem it has historically been, and for this to happen as soon as possible. As the only contemporary art space in South Baltimore, this historic building needs to be maintained and activated for present and future generations.

In the past, School 33’s high level of programming and commitment required a full-time exhibitions coordinator, who managed the building and studio, and also oversaw a vast array of classes taught by area artists as well, and at this time there is no position at BOPA exclusively devoted to programming or curation School 33. As the organization rebuilds and  completes its strategic plan for the future in January 2023, bringing School 33 back to full capacity seems like a reasonable expectation for the future, given the unparalleled opportunity the space provides, and because curation, building maintenance, and program implementation is such a labor-intensive process that requires constant tending, communication, and vigilance.

I hadn’t thought about School 33 in several years before my recent visit, but the success of the Sondheim Semi-Finalist exhibition presents an opportunity for a turning point. As BOPA continues to create new pathways to support Artscape and other major initiatives for the arts in the region through its strategic plan process, I hope that School 33 is brought back into the spotlight as one of Baltimore’s “Big Three” nonprofit exhibition spaces, where it belongs.


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