Arts advocate Nancy Haragan dedicated her life to building a collaborative community. And, as a measure of her success, people just couldn’t stop talking at a recent celebration of her life. Scores of people filled the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Antioch Court on the evening of Dec. 2 to honor Haragan, who passed away Nov. 27 at the age of 60. A slide show of candid snapshots of Haragan’s life—traveling with partner Gwen Davidson, at the beach, at the dinner table—played in Fox Court. Local artists, arts administrators and advocates, institute presidents and directors, and politicians stood around talking and talking, stirring up such a din that at first BMA Director Doreen Bolger couldn’t be heard above the conviviality, even with the help of a microphone.
“She just had such a passion for the arts,” Bolger said by phone the previous day. “And everyone she talked to just wanted to rally around her and be close to that energy.”
Cancer may have claimed Haragan, but it won’t dismantle the community she helped foster. As the founding director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA), Haragan spent more than a decade demonstrating the power of collaboration. “People that are involved with and appreciate the contemporary art scene that we have in Baltimore now tend to forget that there were generations of people that worked really hard to build that community,” says Megan Hamilton, Creative Alliance at the Patterson program director. “When I moved to Baltimore in ’79, there wasn’t an assumption that this was a great art community. And Nancy was part of the generation of us who worked really hard as a team—and building teams was really her strong suit—to change people’s understanding of the cultural community.”
Haragan moved to Baltimore in the 1970s, working for about two decades in marketing and administration in the nonprofit and corporate realms. Her interest in the arts community led to the GBCA’s almost accidental formation when, in 1997, over coffee at the Stone Mill Bakery, a group of artists and advocates—including Haragan, eventual Art on Purpose founder Peter Bruun, artist Fran Brady, and OSI-Baltimore Director of Strategic Communications Debra Rubino—started talking about how great it would be if there was just a way to get all the arts organizations in town talking. Haragan contacted Bolger, and Bolger suggested the BMA as a site for a conference. “We invited all these arts leaders from other cities around the country so that we could hear from them about best practices, and we were stunned because the conference was sold out,” Rubino says. “Everyone [from the local arts community] came, and everyone said, ‘Maybe we need to have some sort of council.’ That was really the birth of the GBCA and it became pretty clear almost immediately that Nancy would be the best person to lead it.”
Over its first decade, the GBCA, a nonprofit advocacy and resource organization for the cultural community, has produced very tangible projects and services, including an online calendar, baltimorefunguide.com, the print and later online arts publication Radar Redux, and the Maryland Cultural Data Project. But Haragan’s legacy resides in the intangible communication channels she opened. She was instrumental in getting local institutions to understand that they could be stronger working together rather than individually.
“She was a great listener and she worked with everybody,” says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “And she had great political judgment. She could be out front [of a project] and not be seen as suspect—because she didn’t have an ax to grind.”
Haragan wasn’t only interested in connecting with the city’s major institutions. “She was just as receptive to the tiny, the anarchistic, the disorganized,” says Gary Kachadourian, artist and former Baltimore Office for Promotion and the Arts visual arts coordinator. “Which is really unusual for that position, because you’re trying to make everybody happy. Over the last 10 years those barriers have really broken down a lot, and I think Nancy was one of the key people in helping that happen.”
J. Buck Jabaily, current GBCA director and founding artistic director for Single Carrot Theater, experienced that largesse first hand. He cold-called Haragan when Single Carrot was looking for a new city to move to from Colorado. He spoke with Haragan, who said she was very busy—and then proceeded to talk to him for 15 minutes. “[H]er willingness and openness to talk to somebody who was maybe willing to move a small theater company, that she was willing to give out every name of every person who she thought could feasibly be helpful, was just such a huge signal of just how generous the Baltimore arts community is,” Jabaily says.
Haragan also changed attitudes. “She just continuously beat back my cynicism about different things,” says Red Room/High Zero co-founder John Berndt. “Nancy had this way of not only bringing people together but making it seem completely common-sensical that they align their interests in the cultural community.”
Haragan knew relationships between people matter—and that maintaining them takes humility, patience, and a firm belief in creative collaboration. George Ciscle, MICA’s curator-in-residence and founding director of the Contemporary Museum, says Haragan had a talent for connecting not just clearly like-minded institutions, but others that no one else had thought of. “Her work as the director of the GBCA and her subsequent vision during her time there, it was constantly promoting that sort of good will that exists today in the Baltimore arts community,” he says. “And it took a person like Nancy to provide that for us.”