Baltimore Fishbowl’s Top 10 cultural stories of 2019

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Image via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Facebook page.

This year saw major changes at some of the region’s biggest cultural institutions, not all of them good. But there’s plenty worth celebrating, including labor peace at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s central branch reopening after renovations and local designer Bishme Cromartie finding fame on “Project Runway.” Here’s our rundown of the most significant cultural stories of 2019. (Brandon Weigel)

All entries by Bret McCabe except where noted.

1. After a bitter labor battle, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management and players reach a deal
When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra management and union announced a one-year contract in late September, the musicians had been without pay since June, the BSO’s summer season canceled, the first part of the fall season postponed. The musicians had been performing without a contract for a full year. The one-year agreement, and the hiring of arts consultant Michael Kaiser to put the BSO’s financial house in order, salvaged the 2019-2020 season. But consider the BSO’s labor challenges a sign of things to come between artists and the business and funding leadership who ostensibly support them, as arts and culture giving has remained relatively flat since 2016.

2. Billy Joel plays first concert at Oriole Park
Rock stars do stadium tours every summer, but Billy Joel’s July 26 concert at Oriole Park at Camden Yards proved to be exceptional. It was the first rock concert in the 27-year history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Per The Sun, principal owner Peter Angelos said in 2000 he didn’t want the famed ballpark to “become some kind of honky-tonk for various and sundry rock ‘n’ roll bands.” But if we’re being honest, it was long overdue for someone of The Piano Man’s stature to christen the ballpark with music. And the club, faced with the prospect of yet another cellar-dweller on the field, is reportedly exploring the idea of even more shows. (B.W.)

Baltimore Museum of Art
Baltimore Museum of Art Photo by Ethan McLeod

3. Baltimore Museum of Art pledges to buy works created by women, receives local critique
Many institutions, museums and organizations will mark the centennial of women’s suffrage with programming and events throughout 2020, but the BMA went all-in. In November, the museum announced its 2020 Vision, a year of exhibitions and programs dedicated to women artists: 15 solo exhibitions, seven thematic shows and $2 million devoted to purchase art made by women. The announcement was met with both inflated praise and smart criticism, particularly the 27 women BmoreArt spoke to about the program. As with in 2018, when Bedford responded to criticism of the BMA’s deaccessioning in the British art magazine Frieze, he did an interview with Artnet to address any concerns, bypassing the madding crowds of parochial locals to speak directly to the larger art world. 

4. Enoch Pratt Free Library’s central branch reopens after renovations

After roughly three years of work, the reopened central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library looks better than it has in a generation. Yes, the new skylight and restored ceilings are visually gorgeous, but there’s also greatly improved services for library patrons as well. There are more public computers, more book stacks, more space for kids and teens, an updated audiovisual room, a maker space and more public meeting/multipurpose rooms, as well as updated heating/cooling, fire protection and lighting. Now the 1933 building is well prepared to continue serving Baltimore well into the 21st century.

Credit: Shane Gardner.

5. The Ottobar changes hands and stays in house
A cross section of punk, rock, hip-hop, metal and local music fans of all ages experienced a collective panic attack in late 2018 when the owners of The Ottobar announced the rock club was going to be sold. Since 1997, the all-purpose venue has served as launching pad for up-and-coming acts and a dependably good-sounding room to catch a much-loved touring band. All fears were assuaged in May when it was announced Tecla Tesnau, a veteran Ottobar bartender, would buy the club. So far, under her leadership, the N. Howard Street nightspot looks the same, but there’s a different feeling in the space. No offense to the former management, but a woman in charge has given the club a subtle but necessary change in attitude, and it’s a refreshing, welcome evolution from an old friend.

6. Bishme Cromartie shines on “Project Runway”
Though eliminated in the penultimate episode of “Project Runway,” Baltimore’s Bishme Cromartie often stole the entire show with his designs. The self-taught designer favors bold, architectural cuts that make women look confident, competent and stunning. He debuted his latest collection during New York Fashion Week at Harlem’s Fashion Row. Cromartie, whose work caught Vogue‘s eye in 2017, never fails to give thanks to the street style and attitudes that inspired him growing up. “Project Runway” brought this adventurous young black designer even more much-deserved national attention.

7. Light City and Book Festival merge

Consider it a self-conscious coupling. The annual Baltimore Book Festival and the now-annual Light City combined into a single, 10-day festival in November called Brilliant Baltimore–presumably because, as The Baltimore Sun wondered, “You need light to read, right?” An economic impact report for this festival of light and literature hasn’t been released yet, but the reception was mixed. Some nights got colder than they were for either event in the past, and the Book Festival has felt a little out of place ever since it moved to the Inner Harbor in 2015. Hopefully, the expected larger crowds made the pairing worthwhile.

8. Keystone Korner opens in Harbor East

This cozy Harbor East spot adds something the city hasn’t had in a long, long time: an old-fashioned-feeling but contemporary jazz club with music seven nights a week and a full bar and kitchen putting out tasty pub fare. It all adds up to a solid one-stop night out. Local stalwarts such as the Caton Castle Lounge and An die Musik have supplied Baltimore with much needed stages for local and touring jazz performers for years; hopefully Todd Barkan reviving his famed San Francisco nightspot in Charm City only adds to, not takes away from, the vital programming those space continue to provide. 

9. Pennsylvania Ave. and Catonsville become A&E districts

Nearly 20 years after Maryland became one of the first states to create an Arts and Entertainment district program, a majority-black area of the city finally receives the first such designation. The Pennsylvania Avenue Black Arts & Entertainment District, located in the West Baltimore corridor, where such storied venues as the Royal and Metropolitan once thrived and the Arch Social Club still does, was named a new district this year. It is the result of a community-led effort to revitalize this creative pocket of Baltimore’s black community. It and the new Catonsville district, Baltimore County’s first A&E district, join 27 others around the state.

Photo by Brandon Weigel.

10. Windup Space closes, Rituals takes its place
Record swaps, underground film festivals, board game nights, bad movie screenings, design conversations, comedy nights, funk dance floor explosions and, oh yeah, live music and good drinks—for 12 years, The Windup Space hosted all those events. Russell de Ocampo’s Station North bar was for the artsy type, a place where young and old, black and white, gay and straight and everything in between and beyond, could hang their hat for an event or an evening. Its intimate room gave the Windup a chill vibe from the jump, and when de Ocampo announced he was closing the space in June, parts of the city’s DIY underground mourned a cherished, shared space. But like Tecla Tesnau taking over the Ottobar, the announcement that bartender Émile Joseph Weeks was turning the Windup into a new place called Rituals was fortuitous. The Windup’s basic floor plan hasn’t changed, but Weeks has added modern flourishes to the décor and programming, paying particular attention to local artists of color and the LGBTQIA community. 

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