Baltimore mayoral candidates turn to the arts

At last week's mayoral forum organized by Citizen Artist Baltimore, many of the 10 participating candidates addressed arts-related issues by tying them into their existing, non-arts-focused platforms: If we solve the city's problems, they suggested, we solve the art community's problems. Though many of Baltimore's issues and the candidates' proposed solutions naturally impact the arts, most of those present did not appear to see the arts as integral to city—beyond the impact on economic development or tourism. A few candidates, however, displayed a level of familiarity with the Baltimore arts community and understanding of its needs that has been absent in past elections.

Citizen Artist Baltimore (CAB), the non-partisan initiative by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, held seven listening sessions throughout the city last January and invited community members to participate in online surveys to determine the art community's priorities for Baltimore's next mayor. The CAB steering committee then used those goals to formulate questions for the participating candidates: Sheila Dixon, State Senator Catherine Pugh, DeRay Mckesson, Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry, David Warnock, Calvin Young, Joshua Harris, Cindy Walsh, and Wilton Wilson. (As of press time, five candidates—Carl Stokes, Embry, Gutierrez, Young, and Warnock—also filled out a questionnaire with responses posted on the CAB website.) At the forum, held in an overflowing auditorium at the Maryland Institute College of Art on March 7, the questions centered around inclusivity in funding, equal access to arts programming city wide, employment opportunities, and strengthening arts education—in many ways echoing the messages of arts activists.

In lieu of a clearly stated and developed plan for the arts in their platforms, the frontrunners touted their past experience with arts advocacy. Pugh reminded voters of her involvement in the creation of the Baltimore Design School and the Fish Out of Water Project. If elected, she said she would expand existing arts programs including the Baltimore Mural Program and the arts districts.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon promised to double the nearly $250,000 worth of grants given out by the Creative Baltimore Fund, which she said she established during her tenure as mayor to provide general operating grants to nonprofit cultural organizations and individual artists. In addition, she intends to reinforce the law that at least one percent of all Capital construction costs go toward public artwork—which has not been effectively implemented since its establishment under Dixon's administration, as multiple candidates including Mckesson and Embry argued.

David Warnock, stretching for street-cred in the arts community, said that as a 10-year-old, he sat on the lap of the famed mobile sculptor Alexander Calder.

MICA President Sammy Hoi, who served as the forum's host, cited a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts study showing that low-income teens without access to arts education were five times more likely to drop out of school. "Studies also show that students in the arts outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT by 96 points," he said, "while a child who has continued access to arts education has a 74 percent higher chance of planning to attend college."

Embry asserted that arts education is a matter of social justice. "Students who are deprived of the education in the arts to which they are entitled are denied the enormous benefits of the arts to their intellectual, social, emotional and creative development," she wrote in her response to the questionnaire. The daughter of an artist who founded a nonprofit supporting expanded arts education in Maryland public schools, Embry claimed that youth arts programming would be her highest priority in arts policy. Of the five candidates that responded to CAB's online questionnaire (CAB creative director Graham Coreil-Allen told City Paper the group is still working to get other candidates to respond)—Embry provided the most extensive and detailed response, drawing from recommendations gleaned from the listening sessions led by CAB in January as well as the "Art-Part'heid" community discussions that began last year to address the racial siloing and unequal funding in the local arts scene.

Blacks Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson emphasized that when it comes to arts education, Baltimore's schools suffer not so much from a lack of resources, but an absence of strategy in the distribution of those resources. Mckesson is the only candidate who, at this point, has dedicated an entire section of his campaign platform to arts policy. Available on his website, the plan is separated into five parts: establishing a Mayor's Office of Culture and Arts, boosting the 1% for Public Art law to two percent, making the permitting process easier for artists to access spaces needed to promote their work, expanding opportunities for artists to live in the city through affordable artist housing and homeownership assistance, and deepening partnerships with Baltimore's cultural institutions.

"We're going to renovate all our school buildings to make sure that public art is centered in those buildings," he added at the forum. He also wants Baltimore to expand its definition of art itself. "When we exclude street artists, we lose, and when we don't think about dirt bikes and muralists we are not being really inclusive in the arts community."

Though there is no mention of arts and culture on Joshua Harris' website, the Green Party candidate has been involved in the arts locally and laid out a relatively knowledgeable plan at the CAB forum. Since his move to Baltimore in 2012, Harris' focus has been on the organization he co-founded, Hollins Creative Placemaking, which he says aims to achieve "urban revitalization and urban renewal using arts as a catalyst while minimizing culture displacement." The committee has brought murals, art walks, festivals, and a park to the Hollins Market community. Like Mckesson, Harris suggested modeling arts programming after successful initiatives in other cities; he mentioned the Dudley Street Initiative in Boston.

Recalling the $200,000 ArtPlace America grant Baltimore received in 2013 that was used to bring European and local artists and artwork to spruce up the transit hubs, Harris emphasized the importance of focusing on local art and artists, rather than pulling from out of town—a shift also endorsed by Walsh, Mckesson, Embry, and Mosby—and making sure funding for those artists and institutions is fairly distributed across the city's neighborhoods.

"We've seen in administration after administration that the only places those funds have been allocated have been downtown and the harbor, and as a result what we see is two Baltimores," he said. "Just like with Baltimore, there's also two art communities that exist here: there's one is valued and one that is not."

Few of the candidates seem able to discuss the future of the arts without reverting to vague ideals. But it's hard not to feel optimistic when the city's potential leaders finally begin to listen to the art community and recognize its existence and potential beyond the Inner Harbor, the Baltimore Museum of Art, or the Walters. And the high attendance at the forum—MICA's Falvey Hall was filled all the way up to the balcony, with the audience spilling out into the lobby—might suggest to candidates that the arts matter more to their constituents than they thought.

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