Within a few weeks of Station North arts space the Bell Foundry being condemned and its upstairs tenants evicted, Mayor Catherine Pugh stood in front of members of city agencies, artists and artist groups, lawyers, developers, and funders, and announced a Safe Arts Space Task Force.
Pugh cited the eviction of the Bell Foundry, where artists "worked and lived," and the Oakland's Ghost Ship fire as reasons for forming the task force, whose purpose "is to create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, live/work, studio, and performance spaces to emerging artists."
Pugh added that safety is "non-negotiable" but expressed interest in a solution that would help artists and give them more options for affordable housing and studio space. What it will do exactly is still unclear, however—she said it is "not a defined task force."
The presence of some involved in the arts and DIY scenes on the task force is encouraging. Included are: musician Dan Deacon, Executive Director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and artist Adam Holofcener, Area 405 and Oliver Street Studios co-owner Stewart Watson, The Contemporary's Deputy Director Lu Zhang, and musician and co-founder of the Red Room John Berndt. No one from the Bell Foundry is included on the task force, though residents including Qué Pequeño, Person Abide, and Aran Keating of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, whose studio was on the first floor of the Bell Foundry, attended the press conference.
Pequeño, who had been organizing shows at the Bell Foundry, said no one from the Bell Foundry was asked to be part of the task force, adding that he only heard about this morning's press conference from friends who sent him a tweet last night announcing its time and location.
"I don't think they were even expecting us to show up," Pequeño said.
Members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society—who have started an ambitious Crowdrise campaign so they can acquire "a permanent home for the BROS community and for BROS performances"—were not asked to be part of the task force, either.
When Elissa Blount Moorhead, the executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment District, spoke at the press conference, she mentioned varying definitions of the word "safety" and noted that what DIY spaces offer up is "sanctuary" for artists, and that's often just as important, if not more important, than physical safety in a building with code violations.
Moorhead also invoked "spatial justice" and her hope that "placemaking" wouldn't turn into "placetaking." She also expanded the concerns, noting that "artists are not a special class" but "part of a wider class" of people who are not provided "safe and affordable housing."
She seemed to make clear that skepticism the arts scene had about the task force.
Nearly a month after the announcement of the task force, it held its first meeting. What played out was an intriguing, occasionally maddening volley between artists, city/safety reps, and arts administrators about the purpose and goals of the task force.
Given such a range of perspectives on the task force—as well as the rather bundled mission of the group—there was some pushback and prodding from some artists who spoke up.
After opening remarks from Jon Laria and Franklin McNeil, co-chairs of the task force, the committee members went around the room and introduced themselves. Deacon said that he made his living "in spaces similar to what we'll be discussing," adding he wished there were more independent artists on the task force—a sentiment echoed by Watson, artist and co-owner of Oliver Street Studios and Area 405.
Laria touched on the need for this task force and the meetings to be inclusive and incorporate artists along with those who can provide technical and financial resources, and to hear from the artists directly (and get them more involved) about what their needs are.
Tracey Knuckles, a consultant on Bloomberg Associates' Cultural Assets Management team, gave a presentation on how other cities have made housing and live/work spaces affordable for artists, mainly citing examples from New York and London. Knuckles pointed out that many cities are calling on municipal government to be more supportive of arts communities. But this, she said, gets complicated in terms of equity: There are often legal barriers to creating housing specifically for people of one particular occupation. Housing that's built for artists has to be continuously occupied by artists years down the line; and sure, artists need housing, but so does everyone else.
One of Knuckles' suggestions that seemed to be potentially adaptable in Baltimore was New York's "loft law," which works with landlords and a special "loft board" with dedicated inspectors to get buildings up to code. She also mentioned protections for tenants that could help them get reimbursed for improvements they made to their spaces and also ensured rent stabilization.
Shifting back to what's happening now in Baltimore's DIY scene, Ellen Janes of the Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP) said her organization and the city began hearing that in many places in Baltimore, "there were actually issues like what caused the tragedy in Oakland... And we were fearful that we would have other buildings shuttered and artists displaced like we did with Bell Foundry."
That prompted the start of a "collaborative effort" between the city and CBP with four buildings that house DIY spaces and a team of pro-bono architects and electrical engineers to identify both imminent threats in these spaces and longer-term fixes. As part of the agreement with the city, property owners and artists have had to put a "moratorium on large performances," Janes said, adding that shows with 150 attendees filling a space with only one main stairwell exit was a hazard, as were "overloaded or jerry-rigged" electrical systems.
The moratorium on shows for spaces that don't have event permits, Janes said, means that the city is giving the property owners time to make these adjustments, particularly on any "imminent threats."
There was some pushback here from the fire department, who wanted to be more involved in the "front end" so that there aren't any "surprises" they could've prevented. "At the moment the deal is how can we maintain the status quo as long as people are safe, while we work some of these other issues out?" said Michael Braverman, acting commissioner and executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. "So there aren't any technical inspections at this point."
Janes said that there is a fear from those in the DIY community of being shut down immediately with no warning. The agreement set up with the city and these pro bono inspectors, she said, will help establish trust: "The ideal that we're aiming for is to keep these spaces as much like they are now as possible."
The next segment was a quasi-brainstorming session and a chance to air out various concerns—from committee members and non-committee-members alike. Laria wrote down people's suggestions on a white board. Several suggested that transparency with this whole process in these public meetings would be difficult—Zhang, of The Contemporary, noted that this meeting could have been publicized better so that those who are invested in this issue could've planned ahead to attend.
Zhang also referenced the work that the CBP and the city have been doing with the four buildings Janes had mentioned, but pointed out that Janes hadn't named those buildings to avoid getting their tenants into trouble. "To be productive we would need to have nitty gritty conversations, but I would not want to put any of these spaces in danger of being closed down," Zhang said.
Several others brought up the fact that rent in DIY spaces often runs cheap (around $300), which is partly what allows artists to do what they do. Berndt, a musician and co-founder of the Red Room, said that there needs to be a discussion about how much exactly artists can afford. "What the Ghost Ship panic represents for all the spaces like it across the country...is the potential to wipe out a culture that is based around people not having to work fundamentally that much," Berndt said. "Their creativity is coming from having those hours in the day to be able to do noncommercial things—not that they're career artists who are going to be the next Jeff Koons in Baltimore, it's not like that; it's actual vital culture, actual vital community happening in the cracks of the official world." That community, he said, "produces a ton of stuff that's worth preserving and a ton of vitality for the city and a lot of us have benefited from it."
Adam Holofcener, of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, added that the city could "reformat" how it uses TIFs and pilots ("tools that we know the city enjoys using") in order to invest in smaller scale projects such as housing and live/work space for artists.
That not enough artists were on the task force committee—especially none from the Bell Foundry—was brought up throughout the meeting by several people. Pequeño said that he and the couple of other former tenants of the Bell Foundry found out about the meeting only because someone shared it with them.
"We don't want to be unsafe," Pequeño said. "The reason we were occupying these spaces is because we have nowhere else to go."
Another former Bell tenant, Person Abide, was frank about what people who live in DIY spaces can afford. Abide said that the Bell housed between 14 and 16 people for $4,000 total per month; not every person was paying rent regularly, but about 10 of them were. Abide spoke out against the idea of artist-specific housing, saying they don't even identify as an artist, and that owning spaces is a better model.
"The fact that we have numbers of people [as in the Bell Foundry] that can commit to the co-ownership of a space—in the same way that we can commit to the co-residence of a space—this is a new category of ownership that should become accessible," Abide said.
Near the end of the meeting the conversation circled back to DIY spaces as intentional communities that change and contain multitudes. Moorhead, of Station North Arts and Entertainment District, said the group needs to flesh out its idea of what these spaces can do and involve more folks who currently live in DIY spaces in the process. "I think a lot of us have an idea about what these spaces actually do and how people actually live," she said, "but there are sanctuary activities, quasi-social-service activities, there's all sorts of things that happen when people are co-habitating."
Zhang reminded the group of the danger of treating artists as a special group that exists outside of the rest of society.
"What we're really talking about are economics and capitalism and a limited access to resources, you know, and we also need to talk about things like minimum wage, public transportation," she said. "Artists are not aliens with other needs than other people."