Just over two weeks after city officials condemned the Bell Foundry building in Station North and evicted dozens of artists in the process, Mayor Catherine Pugh today announced the formation of a task force entrusted with creating more safe, livable and workable spaces for Baltimore’s artists.
During her announcement at The Windup Space, Mayor Pugh referenced the tragic deadly fire at the Ghost Ship DIY space in Oakland that killed 36 people. “We want to make sure that nothing like that happens here in Baltimore,” she said.
Pugh confirmed that as a result of both of those incidents, her office has created the Task Force on Safe Arts Spaces. Its stated mission is to “create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, live/work, studio, and performance spaces to emerging artists.”
The exact steps the city will take to make that happen remain unclear, but the new task force is drawing on a wide range of perspectives while assembling its plan. The group comprises City Councilman Carl Stokes, four city agencies, six artists or art organization leaders, two lawyers, Motor House architect Frank Lucas, three developers and two financiers.
Leading the task force are senior adviser and MICA president emeritus Fred Lazarus and co-chairs Jon Laria, managing partner of the law firm Ballard Spahr, and Frank McNeil, an assistant vice president at PNC Bank.
The city agencies involved in the task force are the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Baltimore Development Corporation and the city fire department. Key artists and art organization leaders include musician Dan Deacon, Station North Arts and Entertainment District executive director Elissa Blount Moorhead and Area 405 co-owner Stewart Watson. The Abell Foundation and Harbor Bank are listed as funders or lenders.
While the task force has a fairly general mission and no direct plan as of now, Mayor Pugh said the end goal is “to protect the safety of our artists and patrons [and] embed Baltimore in our arts and cultural community.”
“They are meaningful, they are diverse, they contribute,” she said of the city’s artists. “Our goal is to make sure they have environments in which they can live and work.”
Even before this announcement, the new mayor has proven to be an advocate for the arts in the city. She was one of the founders of the one-of-a-kind public Baltimore Design School in Greenmount West. On her first day in office as mayor, she spoke to the Sun about the value of the city’s artist community following the Bell Foundry’s closure. One of her plans listed on her website is to strengthen the three designated arts and entertainment districts in Baltimore, located in Station North, Highlandtown and around the Bromo Tower.
Elissa Blount Moorhead, who took over as director of Station North Arts and Entertainment District this past October, said at The Windup Space that Pugh’s commitment to the arts community “gives [her] quite a bit of hope.”
Addressing the work ahead for the task force, Moorhead said its members must make sure to avoid a narrow definition for what constitutes art. Many who worked out of the Bell Foundry, such as the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, were non-traditional creatives sharing in a safe, open space. Moorhead said that whatever approach the task force takes, it should aim to “create sanctuary” for such a diverse group, in addition to pooling together resources and providing structurally sound buildings.
Moorhead said that in addition to serving the current population of artists, a successful task force-supported art scene will serve as “an ecology, an ecosystem” for students coming out of specialized schools like the Baltimore School of Design and Baltimore School for the Arts.
According to Pugh, the task force plans to meet for the first time next month and will develop working plans within four to five months. “This is not a defined task force,” she noted when asked about the actual work they will be doing. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned here.”
Laria, co-chair of the task force, said the recognizes the importance of having a well-supported arts community. “As a city we have an opportunity and even an obligation to provide safe and affordable space for living, for working, for performing, and I think this task force is well-suited to undertake what is really going to be a multidisciplinary effort,” he said.
Despite a lack of specifics, the mayor said that ultimately, she expects the task force to find new ways to accommodate the city’s creative community. “We want to make sure that those who choose Baltimore feel that this is a place that we can call home,” she said.