The Charm City Art Space turns 10 this weekend, celebrating with three days and nights of punk, hardcore, metal, stand-up comedy, and more. In those years, the Art Space has occupied two locations on Maryland Avenue, in what’s since become known at the Station North Arts District, and it’s now one of the most crucial collectively run punk venues in the country. The space is nonprofit, doesn’t allow drugs or alcohol, and keeps its shows early and as openly accessible—from cost to age—as possible.
The Art Space has survived because of its membership: people who understand and care about the principles of doing it yourself and what that can mean for a self-sustaining and inclusive culture. Perhaps you’re only as good as the people you inspire. This spirit, expressed by local-and-beyond, punk-and-beyond figure Nolen Strals as “start a band,” applies nicely to the space itself.
The three people below talk about how the space has grown up over the years while keeping its ideals, baiting fans with popsicles, having faith in kids, and why any of this matters. Punk’s not dead, of course, and it so happens that you live within the orbit of one of its best habitats.
Mike Riley, the erstwhile frontman of Baltimore hardcore band Pulling Teeth, was 26 when he co-founded Charm City Art Space in 2002.
MR: The space was conceived between myself and Michael Wolff. Mike and I had both been involved in various short-lived spaces over the years: Sushi Cafe, Supreme Imperial, etc., etc. So we knew we were coming from the same space in terms of a venue. So we were like, “Let’s get together and see if we can find something.” About a month later, Mike found an ad in the City Paper for this storefront for rent, and that was it.
That was next door [to the current Charm City Art Space], the original space. It had been like a wig shop previously. And we went and checked it out. It was small, but perfect. We didn’t think it would last longer than that summer. We called anybody in the area that might be interested in helping us out in order to come up with first month’s rent and security deposit. We got money from like 25 or 30 people, and we’ve been going ever since.
We were both very aware of places like [San Francisco’s] Gilman Street, [New York City’s] ABC No Rio, [Pittsburgh’s] Mr. Roboto Project—those were the three primary influences, for sure. You know, having something that was collectively run, that was more than just bands playing: A ’zine library, space for art, a community center of some sort, where if someone wanted to come in and use the space for anything, they could do that.
While the intent was always to keep it as collectively run as possible, I found that a lot of people were sort of deferring to me on major decisions and other things, which I was uncomfortable with, but I became a sort of father figure to the space. I was the person that had been booking shows for longer than anyone, that had been involved in this music for longer than anyone. So I just found myself helping guide people in booking shows and going on tour, just through my experience. Not quite a year ago, I found out I was going to be a dad. So priorities started to change, and I made it a point to divvy out all of the responsibilities that I had taken on over the years. Now the responsibilities are spread out a lot more again. It’s cool. The future is in the hands of the people that came after me.
There’s always that threat of people who come from independent culture growing up and getting a day job and losing some of the values and ethics that they gathered over the years. But seeing the opposite of that, seeing it passed on to the next generation—it’s pretty incredible.
Melanie Losover has been going to the Charm City Art Space for about seven years, and joined the collective in 2009. Part of the Art Space’s newer generation, she’s begun taking on many of the tasks formerly done by Riley.
ML: I started going to the Art Space when I was a junior in high school. People I had been friends with, school friends, they were drinking and doing drugs every weekend. And I just didn’t see the point in that. I just thought there was more stuff to do when you’re a teenager that could be a lot more fun. I met new friends, most of them were older, and they were all into going to shows. I eventually came to the Art Space, where a friend’s band was playing.
As a younger kid, you keep going a couple times a week or only on the weekends, something to keep yourself busy, that didn’t necessarily cost a lot of money, and you could find out about new music and meet new friends, and that’s an important part of growing up.
I joined [the collective] because I wanted to book the shows that I would want to go to. I felt like they weren’t booking a lot of those shows, or [were booking] a lot of the same shows—hardcore shows or shows with a lot of really weird bands I wouldn’t be really into. I figured I would do shows for kids that liked my kind of music. I think that’s really important for anyone who says to a promoter, “I really wish you’d book this band.” It’s like, “Why don’t you do it?” It’s really possible with places like the Art Space, where it’s possible for anyone to start doing it themselves, really. I just hope we can get more people involved.
Nolen Strals is the frontman of Baltimore hardcore/punk band Double Dagger and one of the principles of the design firm Post Typography.
NS: Probably since the first year of Charm City Art space, Double Dagger played there quite a bit. In 2003 or 2004, we started to have this running joke that we were the Art Space house band. We would get asked to play with punk bands. We played a couple of shows with metal bands. We were the “they’ll fit with anything” band. I was booking shows pretty regularly from about 2005 to the spring of 2007.
I really love the attitude that they have and the ethics and the mentality. One of my favorite aspects is that no alcohol is allowed. With younger kids, who are just starting to get into this stuff, it makes it easier to convince their parents.
To convince people to come out to a show at three o’clock on Sunday, we gave out free popsicles and free popsicles draw out a ton of people and make the entire room very happy. And it doesn’t matter that, at 3:30 P.M., you’re just this sheet of sweat. Because you have a popsicle, and you’re seeing really awesome bands.
There’s so many shows there that just felt like this perfect moment. And maybe it was because we were younger and more idealistic, but even now, just thinking back, there were certain nights or certain performances that just seemed like these peak moments.
At times, when you’re me, it’s easy to get pretty cynical as you get older and see how the world really works. But places like Charm City, and the fact that it’s been going for 10 years, is a good thing to keep me balanced and help me to remember the actual music world is not the world of Pitchfork. And the fact that people have not been getting rich off of it for 10 years, but still do it, it gives you hope that the whole world doesn’t suck.
For more information on the Charm City Art Space 10-year Anniversary Blowout, visit ccspace.org