Can Baltimore’s creative community, leaders, businesses and nonprofits harness the collective willpower to create safe spaces for artists?
This question wove its way through the second meeting of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Task Force on Safe Arts Spaces last night, held in the main building at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Artists and activists piled into the room with the 22-member group appointed by Mayor Pugh to continue where they left off at the first meeting two weeks ago.
For most of the evening, co-chairs Jon Laria and Frank McNeil steered the conversation toward three main issues: artists’ space needs, code and regulatory issues and project development and finance. At the first meeting, the task force and attendees identified these areas as key priorities for coming up with an end goal for the mayor over the next five months. The task force formed a work group for each issue.
Qué Pequeño, an artist and former Bell Foundry tenant who was evicted with dozens of others early last month, observed that more artists made it out to this meeting than the first one. “There are more artists from outside the community that are actually being allowed to talk and voice their opinions on what does and doesn’t work for safe and effective houses in Baltimore,” he said.
The meeting filled to the point where it was standing-room-only. Attendees floated a flurry of ideas to address artists’ spatial needs. Some pointed out that devoted spaces for artists already exist. Writer and activist Jason Harris said organizations like Artists’ Housing Inc., have existed for decades and have working models that can be replicated across the city. He suggested taking a roll call of all of the buildings that the city could repurpose for artist housing, work and performance spaces. Important criteria he listed included the number of units, how many people each space accommodates and the median rent in those neighborhoods.
“That can at least give the task force a 10,000-point view of what is in the city and then, based off of that, then you can plug it in and have it on a map,” he said.
Others noted that the city must ensure any planned artist housing or workspaces are geographically accessible. Aaron Maybin, a retired NFL linebacker from Baltimore turned artist and activist, supported the idea. “You have to think about the most vulnerable and marginalized people that are going to be accessing these facilities,” he said.
The discussion moved to code enforcement and regulations, the enforcement of which closed the Bell Foundry and led Mayor Pugh to create the task force last month. Baltimore electronic musician Dan Deacon, a member of the task force, asked whether the city could devise new zoning codes specific to artist spaces so that evictions like the one at the Bell Foundry don’t happen. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a whole new paradigm within the existing codes and regulations,” he said.
Acting housing commissioner Michael Braverman said the pending citywide zoning overhaul should make it easier for artists to create living spaces in industrial districts that currently prohibit residents. Assistant Baltimore City Fire Chief Teresa Everett added that typically when zoning codes are modified in Baltimore, it’s usually to be more stringent rather than more lenient. “But there is some room within approval of the council to make some modifications,” she said.
Laria, a managing partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr, said any proposals to change zoning codes should achieve a balance between safety and practicality.
The discussion about the third and most concrete issue – financing – ran with an idea from the first meeting. “By looking at other ‘successful’ artist housing across the country, maybe we can replicate something like that as well,” said co-chair Frank McNeil, a vice president at PNC Bank.
Person Abide, an artist who lived at the Bell Foundry, pointed out that the tenants there were able to regularly pool together $4,000 a month, without collecting from everyone, to pay their rent. He said the city’s shuttering of the space “interrupted a model” that already worked well for years.
Task force member and Harbor Bank vice president John Lewis said getting artists to work together to pay into such a system is an important piece of the puzzle. He said, however, that a group would need more money to secure a large space with a mortgage, particularly if it needs to be renovated. As an example, he said fixing up a $500,000 building would require additional capital, namely about $100,000 for renovations.
However, he said out if groups can amass the money through grants, partner businesses or other means, it’s feasible. He’s seen it happen in Baltimore with community centers, he said.
Artist and activist Duane “Shorty” Davis later added to the conversation that the city has already provided tens of millions in funding for developers of Port Covington and Harbor East. “Why can’t you reinvest that…money into this room?” he asked. “You’ve got powerful foundations and other things like that that invest in the artistic community….Bank of America, PNC and these banks in here in Baltimore need to reinvest in the people of Baltimore instead of the billionaires in Baltimore.”
Before the working groups broke off, Maybin provided some inspiration for why bringing arts-devoted spaces to all sides of the city can pay off. As an example, he pointed to the young residents of his own neighborhood who he knows love to rap or write poetry.
“You’ve got to go out and find these people,” he said, “and it will be to your benefit. These people are brilliant. We have some of the most intelligent, intellectual minds in the world in this city right now.”
The other task force meetings are scheduled for: Feb. 7, March 7, March 21, April 4, April 18, May 2 and May 16. All meetings take place from 4-7 p.m. The task force will also host a “public listening session” on Thursday, Feb. 16.