Mayoral candidates participate in first forum on the arts

On Monday evening, the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Falvey Hall filled out to the lobby with well over 500 attendees for the city’s first-ever mayoral candidate forum focused on arts and culture.

Citizen Artist Baltimore (CAB), an initiative of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, conducted seven listening sessions throughout the city last January and invited community members to participate in online surveys to determine the priorities the art community wishes to see addressed by Baltimore’s next mayor. The CAB steering committee then used those goals to formulate the questions presented to the candidates at the forum, as well as an online questionnaire. Though not yet available at the time of this story’s publication, the candidates’ responses to the questionnaire can be found at the CAB website, where video footage of the forum is also posted.

Many of the candidates in attendance—Sheila Dixon, Catherine Pugh, DeRay Mckesson, Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry, David Warnock, Calvin Young, Joshua Harris, Cindy Walsh, and Wilton Wilson—overlapped on several issues. Gutierrez, Young, and Warnock supported audits to encourage equity in arts funding: Gutierrez called for full-scale audits on every city department, Young for audits on education and investments in museums, and Warnock emphasized that the money poured into North Avenue be audited and redirected into the city schools. Embry, Mosby, Mckesson, and Wilson promised some kind of city arts council, office, or committee (though none seemed to acknowledge the existing Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts), while Warnock and Harris planned to establish cabinet-level positions in the mayor’s office focused on arts and culture. Gutierrez (who drew both laughs and cringes from the audience when—riffing off Mosby’s speech in which the councilman pointed to his background growing up in a low-income Northeast Baltimore home, repeating “statistically, I’m not supposed to be here”—he joked that statistically, he’s not supposed to be here either because he spent two years as a roadie for a punk band in Portland, Oregon) suggested a mayoral summit with members of the arts community.

Walsh’s approach to addressing arts and culture was the same as her approach to everything else: disconnecting Baltimore from the global corporate economy. Similarly, Wilson proposed a vague plan to make Baltimore safe to attract outside professionals and visitors to the city.

The forum’s seasoned politicians pointed to their previous work with the arts community. Dixon promised to double the grants given out by the Creative Baltimore Fund, which she established during her tenure as mayor, as well as reinforce the ordinance that at least once percent of all Capital construction costs go toward public artwork (Mckesson promised to increase those funds to two percent). Pugh, who supported expanding existing arts programs including the Baltimore Mural Program and the arts districts, also promoted her arts-related accomplishments throughout her political career, which include the creation of the Baltimore Design School and the Fish Out of Water Project. Harris, though inexperienced in politics, touted the arts-focused outreach work of his organization Hollins Creative Placemaking, which he says focuses “on urban revitalization and urban renewal using arts as a catalyst while minimizing culture displacement.”

Warnock, who had to leave after thirty minutes into the forum, claimed that he sat on famed mobile sculptor Alexander Calder’s lap when Warnock was a 10-year-old. He also noted that he collects art and put “the first dollar” into the Light City Festival, which kicks off later this month.

The importance of supporting and nurturing art, artists, and art organizations that currently exist in Baltimore—rather than pulling from out of town—echoed throughout the forum. Harris recalled the disappointing example of the $200,000 ArtPlace America grant the city received in 2013 that was used to bring European artists and artwork to spruce up its transit systems. Mosby suggested filling public subsidy projects with local art to help support local artists and encourage competition, as well as partnering with large institutions like Johns Hopkins to get local artists involved in their growth. Embry called for promotion of local art through the city’s online presence and various social media and establishing artist residency programs at city schools.

Even more popular among the candidates was the promise of inclusivity in arts funding, access, and education—redirecting attention to consistently undervalued or underrepresented institutions like the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, invoked by Warnock, Pugh, and Young. While many candidates promised increased funding, Mckesson argued that ample funding and quality educational programs exist; the real problem is equitable access.

“It’s not necessarily a resource problem,” he said. “There’s no strategy and I will bring the strategy.” That strategy remained to be seen, though Mckesson urged the audience to view his platform on his website—the only one of the forum’s participating candidates that includes a page devoted to his plans for the arts. Among other steps, Mckesson’s plan promises that "the City will host a series of art fairs to showcase and direct funding to local artists and expand the Open Walls Initiative to hire local artists to beautify the City."

Expanding on the value of inclusivity, he also asked that the city reevaluate its existing definition of “art” to include interests and disciplines outside of the traditional fine arts realm, including murals, street art, and dirtbike riding. Harris, who claimed he would not have gone to college if not for his involvement in basketball, suggested that sports as well as the arts be given greater funding and consideration in the city’s schools and facilities.

The forum ran smoothly at about an hour and a half, and concluded with an overflowing and awkward onstage selfie between the candidates.

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