Dozens of artists, community leaders, students and others met at the War Memorial Building downtown Thursday night to share their hopes and concerns in the city’s quest to create safe artist spaces in Baltimore.
Mayor Catherine Pugh’s nearly 30-member Safe Art Space Task Force called the meeting “so that people could come and express to the full task force their perspectives, their concerns, their questions,” said co-chair Jon Laria.
The task force is trying to devise a solution that provides dedicated low-cost, safe housing and work spaces for Baltimore’s artists. Pugh launched the task force shortly after the Bell Foundry’s closure put dozens of artists out on the street or left them without their studios after the fire marshal discovered a host of code violations in the Station North DIY space.
Much of the conversation Thursday night focused on the general distrust many artists have for the task force, which they see as an extension of the city government. “It’s very hard for people to reach out for help when they’re afraid that the hand that feeds them is going to hurt them,” said electronic musician Dan Deacon, a member of the task force.
He also said he worries that as the group of community stakeholders deliberates every couple weeks, the Baltimore Fire Department will continue closing additional artist spaces. “We might not have any art spaces by the time we issue a recommendation,” he said.
Assistant Fire Chief Teresa Everett responded that the fire department doesn’t keep a list of art spaces. Instead, she said, the department categorizes buildings around the city by occupancy and purpose.
Deacon also proposed that Baltimore implement a policy similar to one by the City of Oakland that gave existing DIY spaces a “grace period” from fire inspections and, in effect, evictions, shortly after the fatal “Ghost Ship” tragedy. Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who attended as a guest, backed Deacon’s recommendation and said the community must push policymakers to implement that protection.
The task force is developing a strategy to finance new and existing spaces for artists. Attendees said a system should exist that lets artists gain equity in their buildings.
Eva Wingren, a community investment fellow with the Baltimore Community Foundation, recommended using Habitat for Humanity’s “Sweat Equity” program as a model – “putting work into making a space what you want it to be,” she said, in exchange for equity in the property.
The task force was particularly welcoming toward suggestions from artists who have developed or are developing artist-owned housing and studios in Baltimore.
Michael Benevento, co-director of Current Space at 421 N. Howard Street, said he encountered issues obtaining permits from city agencies when creating his artist-run space. He suggested easing the process for other artists, who lack the resources that developers have.
Ric Royer, one of the organizers behind the coop Le Mondo across from Current Space on Howard Street, said artists “should not just be treated as amenities for other developments…and not be left out of the gains of other stakeholders.”
Task force members agreed this should be an option. Co-chair Jon Laria said they are exploring equity-based models.
“I don’t wish for a developer to decide what my idea of a creative space should be,” added Area 405 owner and artist Stewart Watson.
Former NFL lineman and professional artist Aaron Maybin reiterated his point from past meetings that youth should part of the task force’s end strategy. The city’s model should “give them opportunities to beautify the city, once the investment is made,” he said. “We have to include their perspective and their futures in whatever plans that this task force is going to recommend to the mayor.”
Many of the attendees didn’t want to give their names or speak publicly. Knowing this would be the case, the task force put together an anonymous survey. The four-page form asks respondents to identify themselves by artist type, their access to art and event spaces, the amount they pay in rent and many other criteria. The task force plans to use data collected from the survey to develop their recommendation to Mayor Pugh.
The task force has already met four times, including last night’s meeting, and has six more meetings scheduled through May 16. The next one is set for Tuesday, March 7, though they haven’t pinned down a time and place.
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