Mayor’s Task Force Plans Art Space Inventory, Eyes Safety and Financial Assistance for Artists

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Task force members gathered at the Maryland Institute College of Art on Feb. 7, 2017.

Tuesday night’s meeting of the Mayor’s Safe Arts Spaces Task Force was by all definitions productive, but one key component of the second meeting was conspicuously absent: commentary from a crowd of the city’s artists who will, in theory, use the spaces.

Whether community members were unaware of the gathering of city officials, business leaders, arts group stakeholders and other members at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s main building was unclear. But without largely any additional public comment, task force members stuck to their agenda of recapping the issues identified by three workgroups focused on artists’ spatial needs, code and regulatory enforcement and project development and finance. The meeting let out an hour early.

Much of the night was spent discussing the spatial needs group’s planned survey that will account for artists’ needs and create an inventory of Baltimore’s available and potential artist spaces, including housing, galleries, venues and maker spaces. Beth Blauer, a task force member and the executive director of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Government Excellence, explained that the survey must be comprehensive, but still allow respondents to remain anonymous to protect their existing DIY spaces.

This could be accomplished by identifying their use and space types by “classes,” rather than with individually identifiable data points. “The big concern that we’ve heard is that the survey really does need to be de-identifiable or confidential,” Blauer said. “We want to be able to protect the confidentiality of contributors.”

Elissa Blount Moorhead, executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment District, pointed out that “a way to check anonymity” would be “to create an archetype of a user persona.” Blauer said they are trying to identify which archetypes to list on the survey so they can avoid excluding any artist communities from the process.

The survey should be ready to distribute by the task force’s upcoming “public listening session,” scheduled for Feb. 16 at the War Memorial Building downtown.

Empty chairs and open standing room at the task force’s third meeting.

Members of the spatial needs subgroup, chaired by Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance executive director Jeannie Howe, also discussed the need to provide safety tools to those occupying or using the future city-designated safe art spaces. Howe floated the possibility of “a pool of funding” for resources like smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, large fire extinguishers, exit signs and CPR classes.

Teresa Everett, assistant chief of community risk reduction for the Baltimore City Fire Department, said the city already offers free smoke alarms for city residents and business owners. She said if the department gives away free resources like alarms for new artist spaces, it would need to send out units to install them and provide the proper emergency training to renters and landlords.

The task force also discussed a general plan from members of the code and regulatory enforcement work group. Amy Bonitz, president and CEO of the nonprofit developer Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, said their priorities at present are to understand the current code framework as it applies to artist spaces, develop a new protocol for regulation of existing artist spaces, craft a public education campaign about safety and code requirements for artists and analyze the costs of planned safety improvements.

A major hurdle with following the current code system, she said, is cost. “What do you do in a case where someone has been using a building for 10 or 15 years, there never was a U&O [use and occupancy permit] for that change in use, and you’re going to be expecting them to file a U&O and have to come up…for everything in the building – ADA, energy code, all these things?” Bonitz said. “There’s no way they’re going to be able to pay for that.”

She also noted developers typically work with architects to build unique spaces that follow the city’s building codes. Acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman suggested land use experts and architects, commonly consulted by the Housing Department, be made available to those involved with creating new designated safe art spaces.

“These are resources that need to be made available so they can find solutions,” Braverman said.

The code-focused work group also plans to explore models that have helped artists create safe, code-abiding spaces in other cities and review potential options with Baltimore City agencies for new artist spaces as the city prepares for a zoning code overhaul to take effect this June.

The third group, focused on project development and financing, is developing short-term strategies for preserving existing spaces and longer-term strategies for funding new ones. Work group leader Dana Johnson, managing director of the Reinvestment Fund’s D.C. and Baltimore area, said they also want to enable artists to access finance tools like small business loans, mortgages and commercial financing.

“Maybe it’s not a matter of creating a whole new financing pool,” Johnson said. “Maybe it’s a matter of creating some credit enhancement, which is much less expensive, to help existing finance providers feel comfortable making those loans to artists.”

Local philanthropies are another option, she noted.

Jon Laria, co-chair of the task force and managing partner of the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP, also stressed that pilot programs – “something new, something that hasn’t been done here” – are welcome. “I think the Mayor is looking for new, novel…ideas. Relatively low-risk and potentially high-reward ideas are really something we should be focusing on,” he said.

The Mayor’s Task Force on Safe Art Spaces unveiled its website yesterday with full agendas from each meeting, a list of all members and dates of future meetings. Click here to stay updated on all of the group’s plans and ongoing discussions.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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