The city’s most promising high school artists may have gone home for the summer, but Dr. Chris Ford’s studies are intensifying. Ford was named director of the Baltimore School for the Arts in April, beating out 185 national candidates after Leslie Shepard stepped down from her 10-year post. But Ford’s no fresh-faced kid. Despite having already spent three decades at BSA, he’s ready to learn something new.
Dr. Ford took recess in the Aaron & Lillie Straus Foundation Recital Hall to talk about what’s in store for the school, what challenges he’ll face, and what they’re still doing right.
Until last week, Ford taught saxophone lessons—his first job at the BSA. And, while he’ll miss it, the idea of managing this school has long intrigued him. In the days ahead, the school’s administrative teams will meet and share their visions for the next five or ten years. “There’s a process, and I think dictating it from above is kind of silly,” Ford says. But he feels some issues pressing harder than others. “Most of the administrative team—certainly most of the arts department—are my age or older, so they will be aging out in the next ten years.” He intends to find a way to make it easier for new hires to come in and do well from the beginning.
“Side by side with that, for those of us that have been here for thirty years: We grew up at a time when the world of professional arts was really quite different”—not just technologically, but economically. In order to direct students toward viable career paths, they need to ask whether the programs offered at BSA prepare students for the outside world. “And that’s a difficult, challenging thing to do, because you’re asking people who are comfortable with their training and their work to get outside their comfort zones a little bit,” he explains.
Twenty-five years ago, it seemed feasible for a violin student to enroll with the plan to become a concert violinist. Then, the NEA was throwing money at orchestras, and their numbers grew. With them, the numbers of music schools grew. “So there was this great increase in terms of work, in terms of trained people,” Ford says, “and we’re not there now.” The jobs are simply gone. “Orchestras are figuring out how they can pay people less. I think the thing that really got people in the music world’s attention is when the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy.”
And herein lies the school’s key challenge. “There’s not a cookie-cutter career path, and I’m not sure how much leverage we’ve got as a high school to help them with that, but we can certainly help them with the awareness that you need to have a lot of different skills.”
And perhaps that does mean a course in making YouTube videos and distributing your own music. “When I came out of school, people made LPs. CDs are now 30 years old. They’re done! …So that’s more what I’m thinking about. The connection with the world of work for artists.”
Dr. Ford is eager to send the message that the opportunities haven’t disappeared; they’ve just changed. He tells the story of a concert violist who graduated and went to Juilliard. She was interested in new music, works written by her contemporaries, and got a job with WNYC. Soon, she parlayed it into a career as a radio producer. “She had the right group of skills at the right time…and she has this new-music-all-night-long show, which is so weird. Who would’ve thought something like this could happen? She thought it could happen, and she made it happen.” He plans to continue sharing the stories of successful alumni so that students can be inspired by them—even if it means they’ll have to deliver pizzas for a couple of years to get that unusual idea off the ground.
The school’s relationship with its alumni is one of the BSA’s most successful areas. Others include the TWIGS program, and the school’s original charter, which allows this public school to hire career artists, rather than career teachers. “That wouldn’t be feasible now because there’s so much in the way of government regulations about what you have to do to be a teacher.” Other schools don’t get to hire the concert master of the BSO, as the BSA has proudly done.
Perhaps the school’s best success is its community—not merely its proximity to Centerstage, the Walters, and the BSO, but its community of students. This recital room, where there are usually about 120-130 chairs, is where community begins. “Every music student starts the day [here], with chorus. They’re all together. Why do we do that? We think it develops their aural sense. We think it develops their sense of community—everybody knows everyone else.” That community is fundamental to being an artist. “I think they find their place as an individual, but yet their place in a larger group that’s embarked in a similar mission.”