Photo by Jane Sartwell

I met Cara Ober at the BmoreArt office and gallery in the converted storefront at 2519 N. Charles Street where it shares space with one of its supporters, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Colorful paintings hang on the walls of a large, square room; an inviting arrangement of couches and chairs floats at its center. The coffee table holds the most recent editions of the magazine — The Collect Issue (13) and The Environment Issue (14) — as well as a couple of bowls of Halloween candy that Ober lifted from her twelve-year-old son.

“We had only been in here a few months when the pandemic hit,” Ober explained. “Rather than canceling the shows we had already promised to artists, we installed a projector on the ceiling and had the front windows frosted. We held openings out on the street. And now, we still project art every day after dark.”

Creative solutions connecting local artists with the community is a theme that came up again and again in our conversation, during which I came to understand that Ober has profoundly impacted the situation of the visual arts in Baltimore by seeing what’s missing in the infrastructure and filling that space — with media coverage, with parties, with exhibitions, with studio tours, with speaker series, and more. In fact, I walked out of there thinking, Ober IS the infrastructure of the art world in Baltimore. Well, she and a couple of museums or whatever.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Are you a Baltimore native?

I’m actually from Westminster, Maryland, where my father was a kinesiology professor and coach at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel.) I would come to Baltimore for field trips as a kid, then as a teenager to stalk John Waters and go to all the cool thrift stores that were in Fells Point at that time, and to flirt with the skater boys. 

Did you stay for college?

I went to American University in DC for undergrad, then did an MFA in painting at MICA in my 30s. I was a high school art teacher in my twenties, then was an adjunct professor for about ten years. 

And now BmoreArt is your full-time job? Tell us how you made that happen.

I have always been interested in writing, and in collaboration. Even back in elementary school, I worked with a partner —we wrote a series of books from the perspective of her family dog, Scruffy.

In the early 2000s, I wrote for Radar magazine, which was a pocket-sized quarterly guide to art and culture in Baltimore run by David Crandall and Jack Livingston. This was my first art writing, then I started doing reviews for national publications like ARTnews and Art in America.  I wrote about art and culture for the Urbanite for a couple of years. By that time, 2007, we had launched BmoreArt as a collective, community-based art blog. They let me sort of cross-host it, which was great, because when the Urbanite disappeared in 2012, along with its online archives — we went on.

Over the years, we’ve had to upgrade and migrate, ultimately to WordPress where we have a custom site. The current version was designed by Amanda Buck in 2020  to make its look consistent with our print journal, designed by Tony Venne. I had originally worked with Post Typography to design the logo, with the capital A joining the two words, and it has changed a little since the beginning but not too much. They originally envisioned it as a stencil-shaped window to showcase art.

Wow, it’s beautiful. The whole site is beautiful.

It was really important to me to create a clean online space without visual distractions, so we don’t put ads in the articles. We probably should. But I remember when I sold my first ad to this online art supply store. It ran right over our beautiful header and it was just hideous. And it was not even that much money. After that, I was like, no. I just can’t. If I’m going to publish these images, I don’t want them surrounded by all kinds of little boxes that pop up.

This is ironic since our interview in the Baltimore Fishbowl will certainly contain ads! 

That’s the smart way to do it. I can’t say I excel at making business decisions. I tend to let my artist side rule. I feel like I don’t have a choice.

Where are your ads?

We are picky about who we sell ads to and prefer it to be organizations that elevate the arts and/or share BmoreArt’s values. In reality, BmoreArt is supported half by grants – we work with a nonprofit fiscal sponsor in New York so we can accept grants and donations – and half by subscribers and advertising. 

This really smart and wonderful finance person named Debbie Cameron helped me develop our subscription model during the pandemic, when suddenly our advertisers were like, sorry, we don’t have any money. Issue #9, The Craft Issue, was sitting there, ready to go, and we needed a way to pay our printing costs, which are high because we choose to print it locally and on quality paper. 

She suggested we do an affordable subscription — $50 per year — and then a higher-end subscription, $250 per year, which includes invites to events and talks, tickets to the launch parties for each bi-annual print journal. We used to sell tickets to them but now they are private and much smaller due to COVID. And there are other special gallery events, dinners, studio tours, and their names are on the masthead. 

A friend of mine who is a premium subscriber actually rhapsodizes about it. She told me one of the events she attended was “one of the funnest nights of her life.” How many subscribers are there?

For print, we currently have close to 1000 total, with around 70 at the premium level. 

The print publication is impressive.

People see the production quality and assume we’re Conde Nast or something, but there are actually only four of us on the core team, plus a group of regular freelancers. We do two issues a year, priced at $15, though we donate some to schools and libraries and nonprofits.

Does the content come from the online site?

Actually, they’re almost two completely different things. Online is much more about getting people to show up for things. Anything with a timestamp, exhibits and events that need participation and support. We’re online six times a week with original content at BmoreArt.com, including critical reviews of gallery and museum shows, photo essays, and a calendar of events. The calendar is a way to give people access, and to be as inclusive as we can. I discover new artists all the time by looking at our calendar! 

The print magazine is much more of a deep dive into a certain aspect of art and culture and the articles are evergreen. Each issue has a theme, and we build the articles and the artists featured around that. They are designed to be something people would want to collect, and keep around.

Yes, I saw The Comfort Issue (11) just today at my vet’s office! You mentioned you also organize studio tours.

I’ve put together custom tours for a lot of cultural leaders and collectors… the one for Chris Bedford and Mera Rubell was 22 studios in two days. Both of them were saying the same thing — This art is so good! Why aren’t more people collecting it? I was like, Why don’t you buy some of it and start a trend? Since then, at least 8 of those 22 artists have been purchased or exhibited by the BMA, or collected by the trustees. For artists based in Baltimore, this is so important. Once you’re in a museum, you’re established. 

Unfortunately, most museums don’t collect the work of their place and time, they just want to buy the same global artists every other museum in the world has. When you visit these museums and see all the same artists, it’s like going to a new city and eating at the Cheesecake Factory. No offense – I do like cheesecake, but museums are creating a legacy for the future and I want that legacy to reflect the reality of my city and state, especially because the art here is so good.

Baltimore is a good place to be an artist. It’s affordable, we have MICA and great museums, the city is full of artist-run spaces and house galleries. But on the other hand, there are only about four commercial galleries, so there’s not enough representation to go around, and there is not copious funding for the arts. It’s a challenge to get out-of-towners to come here, especially when the news is so negative. The thing is, Baltimore’s problems are expressed through the work of our artists, but in a way that is inclusive and humanizes people.

In 2019, we started a program to support local collecting, Connect+Collect. I run it with Jeffrey Kent, who has mentored many artists here in Baltimore. Jeffrey was selling Amy Sherald’s work long before she did the Obama portrait. Back when her work was like $4,000. And even then, I was like, this is so good but I can’t afford four thousand dollars. Now, those paintings are worth four million. My husband is like, will you please just buy whatever Jeffrey buys!

Do you still have time to work on your painting?

Not as much as I would like, but for me, working on the magazine is a part of my artistic practice. I’ve always been interested in combining image and text to tell stories. I like to combine disparate elements from popular culture, especially from old dictionaries and reference books, into poetic narratives, where you know there is a story and some sort of juicy personal revelation but it’s opaque and you have to work to figure it out. 

Before, I was using media and transforming it into art; now I am creating media about art — taking something abstract and attempting to make it relatable and coherent, in order to build an audience for the arts in Baltimore. 

Cara Ober, Glittering Generalities, a Solo Exhibit at Randall Scott Gallery, Dumbo, NY, 2010. You can see more of Cara’s work at her Baker portfolio site.
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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

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