Monday, June 5, 2017

Shake-up at Baltimore's art institutions

For decades the most visible pillars of art related institutions were Doreen Bolger, the director of the BMA, Gary Vikan, the Director of the Walters, Fred Lazarus, President of MICA and Bill Gilmore who heads up BOPA. Except for Gilmore who headed BOPA for 37 years and just announced his resignation, all the others are already gone and in the hands of capable successors.
Mural behind the stage inside SpaceCamp (Photo: Philipsen)

That much stability isn't the hallmark of the younger art institutions such as the arts districts. Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED) executive director Elissa Blount Moorhead resigned from her position this month. A position she had held only since late last October. Moorhead who moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, NY in 2014 started with great promise and a healthy $80,000 salary which appears to have become a problem to sustain. The resignation was apparently decided in early May.
As part of Elissa Blount Moorhead's thorough exploration and understanding of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. since she became Executive Director last fall, it became clear that the goals and ambitions of the organization were out of alignment with the structure and resources available. Elissa offered a number of thoughtful recommendations for how SNAE might best move forward, including offering her resignation in order to reorganize operations. The board ultimately accepted Elissa's resignation. (SNAED statement).
Before Moorhead, Ben Stone headed SNAE  for four years as the organizations first executive director. He had come to the position from working at the Baltimore Development Corporation and left for Detroit where now works for Smart Growth America in Detroit. Kimi Hanauer, a former Program Director for SNEA also left the organization. Amelia Rambissoon, SNAE's Director of Development & Operations, will serve as Interim Executive Director. No new executive director is currently being sought, she told City Paper.
Elissa Blount Moorhead

Station North is widely seen as a Baltimore success story in terms of its progress as an arts and entertainment district in the last 15 years that is embedded in a larger community development strategy. There are concerns about gentrification in spite of a broad based multi-prong approach to securing affordable work and live spaces within the district. Moorhead was seen as a good backstop against gentrification with an acute awareness of how quickly "place-making can turn into place-taking". An example was the condemnation of  the Bell Foundry art space in Station North which resulted in a special mayoral task force investigating how art spaces can be safe in which Moorhead participated.
Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. employs an arts-based revitalization and placemaking strategy by managing quality public art projects, providing thought-provoking programming, and forging strong supportive relationships with local artists, designers, residents, businesses, and institutions to guide development in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. (Mission)
The Bromo Arts District, created 10 years after Station North, named a new executive director last fall about the same time as SNAE when Stephen Yasko took over from Priya Bhayana who had been Bromo director for three years. Yasko came to the Bromo District from being general manager of the Towson radio station WTMD.
Save November 2-12, 2017 on your calendar.  You're going to want to come see the most interesting indie theater from up and down the Mid-Atlantic!  The streets of the Bromo District are going to be lit up figuratively and literally to create an amazing atmosphere to experience these shows.(Bromo News)
Both Bhayana and Moorhead are said to pursue their respective private consultancies here in Baltimore. Each of Baltimore's art districts are structured differently. Highlandtown, for example, receives staff support from the Creative Alliance and the Southeast CDC. It has no executive director on its own.
Deana Haggag

Also gone after a only brief stint as executive director is Deana Haggag who resigned from the Contemporary, a non traditional nomadic art museum in March of this year. Haggag had taken on the Contemporary when it was described at near death and managed in her relatively short tenure to increase the operating budget more than tenfold. Haggag left for a national position in Chicago. The Contemporary had briefly taken residence in the former Fish Furniture building right across from the H&H Camping store but has vacated that place again at the end of May. The Contemporary is currently led by interim director Lu Zhang.

It is hard to gauge what the large scale change in guard means for Baltimore's art scene which most describe as lively and thriving even in a time when grant money is scarce and institutions like the NEA are under assault by the current US President. Optimistically one could say that the Baltimore art scene has consistently pivoted from the high-brow institutional art of the white "elite" to a socially conscious, race and class-aware bottom-up scene of many collaboratives and individuals percolating up in many areas of the city without paying much attention to the established art institutions.

In a more pessimistic view one has to concede that the recent resignations of Haggag, Moorhead and Bhayana are resignations of those who were already spearheads of social consciousness and representatives of the increased diversity of Baltimore's art institutions. Their departures are not connected and are probably coincidence, but they could indicate that Baltimore may still struggle in supporting its broader arts sufficiently.
Benefits Exhibit SpaceCamp Gallery

The established icons such as the BMA, meanwhile also pay attention to the new socially aware art: MICA's Social Design program is hugely successful. The BMA is co-curating Mark Bradford’s solo exhibit, Tomorrow is Another Day, at the US Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, an exhibit which is critical of American history and culture interspersed with mythological references.
Bradford’s longtime social and intellectual interests will be present in the Pavilion, most notably in his concern for marginalized people, both their vulnerability and their resiliency, and the cyclical threat and hope of American unfulfilled social promise. Coming at a moment of terrible uncertainty, Tomorrow is Another Day is a narrative of ruin, violence, agency, and possibility, a story of ambition and belief in art’s capacity to engage us all in urgent and profound conversations, and even action. Official Biennale text: 
The Venice Biennale, of course, is the art Woodstock of the international art elite. It also has become increasingly diverse and culturally aware.
Mark Bradford, Venice (Photo: bmoreArt)

A benefits exhibit called Artists for Truth held at the SpaceCamp Gallery in the North Avenue Market next to the Windup Space was jammed and bidding on the pricey exhibits was active. One of the opening night visitors: Doreen Bolger
The exhibition features over 250 artworks by 150 artists, hailing from Baltimore and across the United States. All works will be for sale through a silent auction. The exhibition will raise funds for organizations that work to combat the spread of misinformation, teach news literacy, ensure the right to share and access factual information, and protect the rights of truth-tellers in our democracy. Proceeds from the auction benefit Enoch Pratt Free Library (Baltimore), Baltimore Action Legal Team (Baltimore), News Literacy Project (Bethesda), and the Center for Media Justice (Oakland, CA). MICA event information
The debate whether art is an instrument of gentrification which has been around ever since artists became pioneers in turning around the ailing district of SoHo in Manhattan in the 1970s, continues in Station North and may soon reach the Bromo District. There gentrification seemed too distant to be a threat so far. But art itself has changed since then and so have the institutions that promote it. Baltimore benefits from art not only as economic development but from art as a catalyst for questioning the status quo. As such art has become ever more important and deserves continued institutional support so it can remain the ferment that Baltimore needs, whether in the three arts districts of Station North, the Bromo District and Highlandtown or anywhere in between.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Crowded exhibit opening: SpaceCamp Gallery

City Paper article about Moorhead resignation
A 2015 City report about the arts districts

Due to travel articles will be less regular for the next 10 days

The book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with free shipping. 

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