Who benefits from the mayor's plan to boost the Baltimore art scene?

During the Cultural Town Meeting on Wednesday night at the Maryland Historical Society, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake boasted the numerous arts- and community-based projects, research, and grants that are supposed to help accomplish her goal of bringing 10,000 families to Baltimore in the next ten years. But when the floor opened up for specific questions, she didn’t have many specific answers.

Jamie Hand, the Director of Research Strategies at ArtPlace America, began the meeting with a presentation on “creative placemaking,” which basically means “doing art to change a place.” While it has recently become a buzzword, it’s unclear whether the arts-based solution really makes a positive impact on the “vibrancy” (or “quality of life,” as Hand put it) of the entire community.

The mayor seemed ignited by all the talk of community building and community strengthening. She acknowledged that “connecting students to the arts has to start at an early age,” and mentioned Dr. Gregory Thornton, the new CEO for Baltimore City Schools, whose desire to provide an inclusive arts education in schools will “help ensure that we grow the next generation of artists right here in Baltimore.”

Rawlings-Blake then took stock of a few accolades Baltimore has received for working “toward equity and access to art education for all of its students” and Dr. Mariale Hardiman’s research through Johns Hopkins on “brain-based research on how art supports learning and retention.” She talked about how creative placemaking is intertwined with and benefits other sectors such as sustainability, planning, and neighborhood development, and how it’s having an impact all over in the city.

Without adding much detail, she breezed through a long list of projects such as “Transit” (which received an ArtPlace America grant), which the Station North, Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, and Highlandtown Arts Districts have contributed to, including the “BUS” sculpture in Highlandtown, and Open Walls Baltimore. She mentioned murals along the gateway to the Horseshoe Casino, Baltimore’s newest attraction, which is “the ideal location to showcase our local artists” due to the amount of traffic through that area. She said that Stephen Powers’ “Forever Together” mural in East Baltimore got the community “talking, thinking, and inquiring, which is what art can do.”

After running through a list of the annual grants, events, and organizations in the area such as the Sondheim Prize, Baker Artists Awards, the Rubys, the Creative Baltimore Fund, BOPA, the GBCA—Rawlings-Blake said that all of these are “an important part of the city’s vibrancy, and are so critical to achieving [her] goal of growing Baltimore by 10,000 families over the next decade.”

In the Q&A that followed these listings, it was apparent that the mayor could have benefited from having representatives from one or two of those organizations to help field the questions and dig a little deeper. A question from a high-school student about positive outlooks for teens, suggesting that there ought to be more free after-school programs, was met with a suggestion to reach out to the director of schools.

Since the whole talk had centered on community and working together, Evan Moritz of Annex Theater asked for help finding tools, rather than money, to help small nonprofits such as the Annex Theater and EMP Collective grow into bigger, mid-level companies. The mayor answered, “I don’t know that we have that infrastructure” for nonprofits, but suggested some kind of mentorship between small businesses (for which there are tools) and small nonprofits.

Mia (whom we were unable to follow up with after the meeting) introduced herself as an arts organizer in the area who tries to connect young adults to the grant opportunities and organizations that the mayor had just listed, “just so there’s a little more transparency, equity, for those who don’t normally see it or have access.” She described situations in which business owners who’ve been around for years aren’t able to get the same grants that other, newer businesses get because of various harsh restrictions.

Mia said that the whole idea of creative placemaking should be good for the whole community, but that it seems “‘community’ means these five or six people that show up to business meetings and community associations that aren’t totally representative." She asked how we could ensure that these opportunities are more equitable and transparent to make more businesses successful, with appropriate permits and licensing. Rawlings-Blake’s response divided “art that is widely consumed” and “art that is purposefully underground,” saying that since Mia is speaking up for these people, she should also, then, connect these individuals to the city and the Baltimore Development Corporation to “break through whatever barriers there are to the equity that you see.”

The mayor’s short and political answers precluded what could have been a healthy and helpful open discussion about how to address some of these problems. The optimistic talk about community building was balanced by Mia’s call for a critical look at accessibility and transparency—and to notice who is really benefiting from these opportunities.

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