Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Matchmaking between artists and developers

On the occasion of two large development requests for proposals (RFP) "on the street" for whole blocks of Baltimore's Westside Priya Bayana, Director of the Bromo Arts District organized a meetup of developers and artists at the Current Space gallery last week:
Join us for a panel and networking happy hour to inform and connect artists, cultural organizations, real estate professionals and others interested in submitting proposals for the Bromo Arts District properties currently available through the Baltimore Development Corporation’s (BDC) Request for Proposals (RFP) process
Even though the format was conventional, a panel discussion with Brian Oster, architect as moderator and Jim French and Ted Rouse as developers, Ric Royer,  as artist (le Mondo Theater Group)and Dana Johnson as non-profit (Community Investment Fund), the ideas was creative and anything but conventional.

In fact there is considerable trepidation on the side of artists when it comes to those RFPs from BDC since they are big, cumbersome and expensive to respond to and usually bring themselves displacement and change that is not always in favor of the little guy. At least, those are the lessons from the past when the BDC was still a different place, but nobody is quite sure if those days are entirely gone. The old BDC would condemn whole blocks, relocate whatever remaining merchants and give the whole kid and caboodle for a dollar to some private "master developer". Of course, the last attempt of such urban renewal failed spectacularly under the name of "Superblock" and it is precisely this area that is now up for development again. But this time, it doesn't have to be a master developer taking it all, this time smaller developers can apply for just one or several parcels and buildings, just as they see fit.
Panelists Ric Royer, Ted Rouse, Jim French and Brian Oster (from left)

That gave Priya the idea that artists should learn more about RFPs and developers should learn more about artists. Hence the "Matchmaking event". The Current Space gallery was full and the discussion animated, but the matchmaking was tepid, in part because there seemed to be hardly any developers that ventured to this event that was quite far out of their comfort zone. Artists heard a lot about how one responds to RFPs and most of that was probably somewhat intimidating given the typical economical conditions of younger artists who are artists after all, and not accountants or business people versed in pro-formas. It occurred to me that there still is a big gap between their world and the expectations of a RFP, no matter how reformed the BDC may be.
DPoB's Kirby Fowler explains RFPs, panelist Dana Johnson (left at the table)
But as Ric Royer put it, move the relation from landlord - tenant to one that gives the artist ownership, in other words, transitioning artists from being pioneers to being actual stakeholders.

Ric, together with Evan Moritz of the Annex Theatre Company, Carly J. Bales of EMP Collective put his money where his mouth is and formed a team with Ted Rouse for a theater project in a group of buildings across the street from the Current Space and won the RFP with him (as the only submitting team).

Hopefully with a few grants one can pool resource on one side and artists on the other so that the matchmaking is facilitated, in a more comprehensive way, similar to how BDC had organized the fa├žade grants for merchants.

· If the responses to the RFPs should not cover all the properties offered, it will be important to develop pop-up strategies to allow temporary seed uses into the remaining structures. Maybe pop-up operators could then acquire shares through their sweat equity that will guarantee them a place in the longer run. Other artists operate on a transitional base anyway and may be ok to be in places only temporarily.

The next meeting could simply focus on artists telling their (Westside) story to developers. That potentially would draw more developers who may be as much uneasy about artists as artists are about development. Developers would then understand better what is expected of them or what the Bromo District is all about or wants to be. Such an event would be less ambitious than match-making but may facilitate an even broader dialogue. Artists talking about what they are experts in, developers listening. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA



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