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Amy Cavanaugh: Ten Years of Service at Maryland Art Place

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When one sees Amy Cavanaugh and her infectious smile greeting visitors at Maryland Art Place’s spotless galleries, it’s not easy to picture her playing in bands at the infamously grungy punk mecca CBGB. But when we look at Cavanaugh’s journey from classically-trained cellist to indie rocker to community organizer to arts administrator, we get a richer picture of one of Baltimore’s hardest working cultural leaders.

In 2012, Maryland Art Place (MAP) was located in a cavernous rented space within Power Plant Live, but MAP’s Board of Trustees had decided to relocate the arts organization back to 218 W. Saratoga Street, its original home in a building owned by the organization. They needed a leader to create and enact a feasible plan to accomplish a successful move and renovation of the original building. When Amy Cavanaugh was hired as its Executive Director in 2012, she had a background in arts administration as well as in cultural economic development, which made her uniquely prepared for the multitude of challenges that lay ahead, in establishing MAP as a central anchor in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District.

As with many of us working in the arts, Cavanaugh started out her career as a practicing artist. She was raised in the Washington, DC area, with the majority of her childhood spent first in Georgetown and then in Fairfax, VA, which was mostly fields and farms back then. From the age of nine, she studied the cello, with a classical training that continued through secondary school, culminating in her participation with the National Symphony Orchestra in her junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

She earned a scholarship to Catholic University in Washington, DC, where she studied cello with Bob Newkirk, principal cellist for the Opera House Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and after that, returned for a Master’s Degree. However, a year in she decided to switch her focus from solo performance to chamber music because she much preferred to play in groups, but this concentration was not available at the time at Catholic U. Cavanaugh decided to drop out of grad school and spent a year learning how to improvise.

“I forced myself to play with different groups, and this is how I met the members of my very first band, called 24 FPS (Frames Per Second),” Cavanaugh says. They released their first EP  in 1996, and performed in clubs on the East Coast up into the early 2000s.

 

24 FPS
Early photo of 24 FPS band members

“We played a lot of DC, Philly, and NY venues,” she recalls. “We had an agent in NY, and this meant we would play at spaces such as the CBGB Gallery, and a lot of other venues that don’t exist any more. Our sound was very indicative of that era, acoustic indie rock, more about the way it was produced, but we had a violin player and we co-wrote some songs.” Cavanaugh wrote all the string arrangements with the band’s lead singer, John Howay, and violinist Jen Lewin.

After the band broke up, Cavanaugh moved to New York to keep playing cello, this time with a new band, Papercranes, led by Rain Phoenix, sister to River and Joaquin Phoenix. They played on and off for about three years, and at their first official gig, the South by Southwest festival, shared a bill with Peter Buck from REM.

“I spent a lot of time one step away from famous people, which was kind of fun and exciting. I got to meet a few people I would otherwise not have met,” says Cavanaugh. “I was a gun for hire, so with anything I composed or arranged musically, I was required to sign the rights over immediately to Phoenix.”

Cavanaugh says this wasn’t all that unusual for an instrumentalist though recalls signing string arrangement rights over to Rain on a beverage napkin at the Knitting Factory one night, which was kind of funny. Cavanaugh says she learned a lot from her time with Rainshe had a great work ethic. Their working relationship faded when Phoenix decided to relocate and/or also switch up her sound, but by that time Cavanaugh was already exiting New York. She moved back to Northern Virginia, and started bartending at the Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray Alexandria, until she could figure out a next step.

 

Amy installing art at Honfleur Gallery, DC
Amy in the studio for Stars and Atoms

Soon after, Cavanaugh accepted her first “real job”—with ARCH Development, a nonprofit cultural development organization run and founded by Duane Gautier. The development organization worked in Historic Anacostia, converting HUD-controlled buildings into nonprofit cultural facilities. One of those was Honfleur Gallery, an art space that was eventually run by Cavanaugh and Briony Hynson.

ARCH Development was mostly a silent partner on a number of projects, and sister organization to the ARCH Training Center, an organization offering Anacostia youth outreach and skill building for construction and craft work, so that they could be a part of the physical transformation of their neighborhood infrastructure.

“This meant that development happened much more slowly here than other parts of DC,” Cavanaugh explains, because it created jobs and opportunities for the existing communities to benefit from the development, where the youth landed job placement.

“Eventually we discovered that I was good at grant writing and I knew some things about art because of family ties,” she says. “I worked with Duane to redevelop Honfleur, Blank Space, Vivid Solutions photo gallery and print lab, the Hive, a co-working, incubation, and residency space, with units of housing embedded in each project.”

ARCH continues to fund artist spaces and projects in that area of DC, in some cases divesting itself from developed properties in order to fund new nonprofits, and creating a number of programs and performance series, as well as funding opportunities, like the East River Distinguished Artist Award, Honfleur Women in the Arts Grant, and Small Business Technical Assistance Grants to nurture the local ecosystem.

Cavanaugh worked for ARCH for seven and a half years, and was promoted to COO by the time she moved to Baltimore. “I got a lot of real world training,” she says. “This included ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly,’ but it prepared me for all kinds of economic, legal, and administrative challenges.”

Cavanaugh admits that she always thought Baltimore was a more interesting city than DC, and she was ready for a change, especially after several of her DC-based friends moved to Baltimore in the late 2000’s. She and her then-husband bought a house in Hamilton in 2012, and soon after she started playing cello again. This time, it was in the Baltimore-based, instrumental indie rock band Yeveto, with Russell deOcampo. “We were quite cinematic,” she says of the group. “We mostly played with films, and worked with AFI in Silver Spring.” One highlight for Cavanaugh was the time Yeveto scored the film DerGolem and then played in a live performance and screening.

 

Yeveto set at Golden West, 2012, photo by Valerie Paulsgrove
Yeveto Album Cover with art by Andrew Liang

Cavanaugh was still commuting from Baltimore to DC for work at Honfleur, but applied for the Executive Director job at MAP in 2012. She was thrilled to be selected for the leadership role, but admits that it was also a rude awakening, discovering the huge disparity between the way DC nonprofits are funded and those in Baltimore.

“In DC, the federal government flows into the local government,” she says, explaining that this offers significant funding for the arts from a variety of well resourced organizations, but realized that this kind of “trickle down effect” doesn’t exist in other cities and states. Cavanaugh says the biggest lesson in her first year at MAP was that “federal funding was not going to save me, like in DC. The money I was able to raise in DC was not going to happen in Baltimore and this was hard to learn.”

Just an hour away by car, the government contracts common in DC simply do not exist in Baltimore. Cavanaugh says it became clear quickly that in Baltimore, individual giving was the main focus for nonprofit organizations. “In DC, we didn’t work with many individuals interested in philanthropy, but here in Baltimore, we rely on the generosity of individuals—there’s a lack of robust city support.”

Although it might seem like an established non-profit cornerstone for the arts in the region, MAP is still a relatively new organization. It was founded in 1981 by a group of artists who wanted to address the shared desires of contemporary artists throughout the state and the need for more access to information about opportunities and artists working in MD. The MD State Arts Council granted funds to form the new organization to advance the region’s contemporary art communities, leading the organization to incorporation in 1981. From the very start, MAP’s goal was to work with living artists to provide that missing foundation—a centralized space to exhibit work and make connections.

 

Maryland Art Place building at 218 W. Saratoga

According to MAP’s website, the organization functioned out of rented spaces and as a roving curatorial program for several years, until it leased space in 1986 with a unique purchase option at 218 West Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore. In January 1988, MAP purchased the 20,000 square foot building, and completed a renovation in 1991, providing MAP a gallery space as well as a permanent and central base from which to build its programming.

The organization continued to occupy the lower two floors and basement of the five-story structure until building out and moving to Power Plant Live in March 2001, then a new Inner Harbor development owned by Cordish Group, with ties to MAP Board Member and President Suzi Cordish and under the leadership of then-director Jack Rasmussen.

During its time at Power Plant Live, The 14 Karat Cabaret, a performance component of MAP’s programming, continued under the direction of Laure Drogoul, showcasing an ongoing series of performance, music, dance, film, and video in the basement of MAP’s West Saratoga Street space, but the upper floors and galleries were mostly unused. After a decade in the Inner Harbor, in 2012, MAP’s board decided it was time to move back to their original building, which now needed repairs, but was centered in the newly forming Bromo Arts District.

Cavanaugh started at Maryland Art Place in 2012, focusing on one main goal; to move the organization and all of its programming back to Saratoga Street. She accomplished this Herculean task in January of 2014. At this time, Cavanaugh had two employees: Emily Sollenberger and Paul Short. Chris Janian, a local real estate developer, eventually became board president following MAP’s transition from former Board President Dawn Gavin, now a professor of contemporary practices at School of Art Institute Chicago. Cavanaugh was determined to continue MAP’s signature exhibits and programs, but needed to raise a lot of money to restore the building, especially its roof and infrastructure, as well as to rent out the upper floors to arts-based tenants who could generate modest income.

 

MAP Gallery with 'Repurposed with Purpose' exhibit, photo by Ted Henn
MAP Out of Order 2022

Now ten years later, the building is fully rented and the gallery program plays a robust role in Baltimore City, particularly within the Bromo Arts District. MAP’s move has paid off, but it hasn’t been easy.

In her role as ED at MAP, Cavanaugh now splits her days between meetings designed to cultivate relationships with potential donors, writing grants, guiding MAP’s exhibitions schedule, and spends the rest of her time working to fund infrastructure improvements on the historic Saratoga Street building. This includes day-to-day running of the building, tenant relationships for the upstairs studios and galleries, capital replacements, working with contractors making necessary repairs and improvements to the building—which had been neglected in the 20 years when MAP had operated out of the Power Plant Live location.

Cavanaugh’s board president is now Liz Courtemanche. The organization has 3.5 employees, including Caitlin Gill, Exhibitions Manager and MD State Directory Coordinator (a role MAP has played since its inception), Elisha Coleman, Administrative Assistant with an emphasis on development, and Ronnie Downes, the Building Manager for 25+ years. MAP also regularly curates solo exhibits at Hotel Indigo, located nearby and gets leadership support and input from the Program Advisory Committee or “PAC,” an artist-centric group that serves as an advisory board for exhibits and programs.

“I carve out a day a week to sit down with Caitlin to discuss the projects we are working on and meet with the PAC quarterly,” Cavanaugh says, describing her position “not as a full time job, but a double-time job.” She says her phone is always on, and she works days and nights, but she is proud that MAP can offer paid health benefits to employees and a decent salary.

Now that the building is fully leased, Cavanaugh describes it as a “really active 24 hour building.” Recently, a NY-based development company bought the property on the corner of Howard and Saratoga, and is planning a restaurant, coffee shop, and residences that will be called Crook Horner Lofts, which will change the block and add more foot traffic.

 

MAP Facade with Cheon-Kroiz sculpture
Portrait of Amy Cavanaugh by Justin Tsucalas for Style Magazine

Cavanaugh cites the growing success of the Bromo Arts District, where she serves as board chair and works with its director, Emily Breiter. Working together, the organization is redesigning their strategic plan, focused on increasing foot traffic in the area and increasing collaboration between businesses, developers, and arts organizations, keeping the arts a central priority and draw for audiences.

“I have no regrets about our move back to Saratoga Street, it’s where MAP should be,” says Cavanaugh. “We are located in a central place to foster community connectivity and access, between residential, commercial, and cultural organizations.”

She says that MAP plans to reopen the basement cabaret space as a speakeasy called Underbar in the spring of 2023, after solving infrastructure problems. Access to Underbar would be part of a membership to MAP, where members enter for free or guests can buy a one-day pass. The space will include cabaret-style music, and honor the history and creative labor of Laure Drogoul and the 14 Karat Cabaret. Their plan is to include local music, comedy, film screenings, and performances.

With the predicted income from the bar, MAP plans to eliminate all artist submission fees to their exhibits, which are typically minimal but currently necessary. As a continuation of the relationship with ARCH Development in DC, an Honfleur satellite space has just opened upstairs in MAP’s building. Other grounding tenants include The Lineup Room, Blackwater House Productions, The Nest (all recording studios), and the risograph print shop Sense of Press.

Now a divorced single mom, Cavanaugh resides in the northern Baltimore City neighborhood of Beverly Hills with her son and mother, which allows her to keep evening work hours when necessary, often sacrificing her home and social life for round the clock work responsibilities.

“I’m not a martyr, but I have put so much of myself into this work, this organization,” she says. “It was important to me to keep MAP going and not to have it fail, especially under my leadership as a woman.” Cavanaugh says the organization was not self-sustaining when she started, and is determined to make sure that it is successful and has the infrastructure in place to continue to operate smoothly when she decides she is finally ready to move on.

“I love what I do because I genuinely love helping artists, creating opportunities, and connecting people to opportunities,” she says. “This all makes me happy. I am much better at giving to others, and I come from a family of artists, so my work comes from a place of love.”

Looking back, much of Cavanaugh’s success stems from her background at ARCH, where development concerns were always balanced with programs to prevent gentrification and displacement. “You have to keep your artists and small businesses in the neighborhood,” she says. “There has to be affordability and rent stabilization. There has to be a mix of industries, and mixed-use spaces. The Bromo Arts District is intentionally including diverse income brackets and a realization that we have to properly value the artists. We do not want to price them out, even if they don’t make a lot of money, because the art fosters understanding and energy and builds relationships. It’s essential that we fund their projects and incentivize them to stay in these neighborhoods as they improve.”

These past ten years at MAP may seem to be a blur of exhibits, events, and art walks, but it’s important to realize that none of it would have happened without the determination of one devoted arts administrator. Although it’s flown by quickly for those of us who have benefitted from MAP’s existence and stability, it’s required ten solid years of labor, building improvements, grant writing, and intentionality from Cavanaugh, who has successfully steered MAP home to Saratoga Street and built an organization that can be sustainable for the future.

 

JM Giordano and Cavanaugh at MAP during Bromo Art Walk, 2022

Photos courtesy of the artist, header portrait by E. Brady Robinson

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