A year ago, the Baltimore Development Corporation approved a proposal submitted by representatives from local performance-art organizations to transform three empty buildings on the 400 block of North Howard Street in the Bromo Arts District into an artist-run performance-art incubator that would house multiple performing arts companies and arts organizations. At that point, the project was nameless and in the early planning stages, but the group's ambition caught the city's attention. Since then, Evan Moritz of the Annex Theatre Company, Carly J. Bales of EMP Collective, and Ric Royer of Psychic Readings—the organization's creative directors—have given it a name, Le Mondo, and their plan has evolved.
A little more than a month ago, one of the three buildings Le Mondo was in negotiations to acquire burned down, leaving only its shell. Now, the group has negotiated with the city to remove the destroyed building from the deal. But although its hopeful location has been reduced by a third, the group remains driven to occupy the remaining buildings with first-floor performance venues as soon as possible. The plan is phased into a roughly five-year period, beginning with the ground floors and working up over time. In a year and a half, Le Mondo hopes to have at least one space operational.
In the meantime, the group is fine-tuning its goals, developing a board of directors, negotiating contracts, and avidly pursuing fundraising measures. In June, Le Mondo raised almost $25,000 in more than 200 online donations, the sum of which was matched by board member and developer Ted Rouse. In December, they will find out if their request for a $500,000 acquisition grant is approved. They hope to raise another 25 grand in crowdsourced donations by the end of the year. Starting on Aug. 20, Le Mondo will host three consecutive nights of plays, performance art and installation, live music, and dance performances at EMP Collective and Psychic/Annex as "Mondo Festo" in an effort to raise additional funds and let attendees sample the kind of work Le Mondo aims to support.
"It's a celebration of the type of performance work that we want to see grow in the city," says Bales.
At this point, Le Mondo is slated to house the creative directors' respective companies as well as a cafe, artist studio spaces, and multi-use space for other arts and educational organizations, including Baltimore Youth Arts, a program led by Le Mondo board member Gianna Rodriguez that works to provide employment and skill training to incarcerated youth who are charged as adults.
Over the past several months, Le Mondo's organizers have traveled around the East Coast, visiting other artist-run spaces to inform their own vision. New York's La MaMa—to which the name "Le Mondo" is a homage—has been running since it started in a basement in 1961, and has expanded to include three theaters, office and studio spaces, a visiting artist dormitory, and an art gallery in Manhattan's Lower East Side, hosting a range of small DIY theater groups and major regional companies.
Moritz praises Le MaMa's diversity as a major inspiration for the vision of Le Mondo.
"I feel like with performance and arts in general in the city, there seems to be this big gulf as though you're either real DIY and really vying and fighting for resources, or you're [a] very large regional arts organization and you have resources," he says. "I think that one of the big problems that we have is that we have a lack of spectrum that sits in the middle there."
Because arts foundations tend to be risk averse in their donations to arts organizations, he says, small groups must often scrap and compete for resources and are unable to grow.
"They want you to be at a certain watermark before they support you, but there's no resources to raise you to that watermark in the first place," Bales says.
Le Mondo's mission aims to provide small groups with physical space and shared resources such as production equipment and the collaborative skill sets of Le Mondo's participants, so that artists and groups who would otherwise be unable to explore and improve their work through experimentation can do so with greater stability.
"You have a lot of push to keep these large regional organizations growing and growing and growing as if there's only one destination in art—and it's more money," says Moritz. "It makes more sense to sort of have a consortium nonprofit like Le Mondo that acquires property and resources and then, in more of a Marxist Nietzschean sort of way, allocates resources to drive down the overhead cost of small organizations. The real test is, is this the sort of thing that improves the criticality of the artwork, or this the sort of thing that becomes a sort of pay-to-play house."
On Sept. 15, Le Mondo will host its second community charrette to present their plans to community members and receive feedback as a follow-up to its first well-attended gathering back in January. Though Moritz, Bales, and Royer have kept some aspects of the project's vision constant, particularly the plan for ground-floor theater spaces, they've allowed other elements to evolve with the community's responses, particularly the desire for studio spaces rather than live-work spaces.
"You can create a structure that has structure and integrity," Bales says, "but is pliable to be able to bend itself to the changing needs of the community."
Mondo Festo takes place Aug. 20-22 at EMP Collective and Psychic/Annex. For more information, visit lemondo.org.