Mayor’s Safe Art Space Task Force addresses distrust and offers new resources at public forum

After multiple meetings that were open to the public—though, as some complained on social media, not publicized with enough notice and visibility—the Mayor's Safe Art Space Task Force hosted a public forum in the War Memorial on Thursday to hear out artists, organizers, programmers, and patrons of the arts. Many filled the seats, though dozens steadily peeled away throughout the nearly three-hour forum. Some leaders of local DIY spaces and groups were noticeably absent, a symptom that musician and task force member Dan Deacon attributed to a distrust within the DIY community for the city government and even for the task force itself.

Artist and community organizer Dejuan Patterson honed in on that sense of institutional distrust, particularly for artists of color who have not benefitted from the development of arts districts and institutions. "Baltimore's art scene is reflective of Baltimore as a whole: fragmented and segregated," he said. "What are we doing to assist those who've been displaced for years? How many art districts or buildings that's not coded will be built and maintained around institutions or neighborhoods that are proving 'successful'? I would like to know who's defining 'success' and what is an established group. We have so many artists that have been displaced for so long, lacking the resources or proper representation, they rarely ever get into the position that they can advocate for themselves at this stage."

To extend the reach of the public forum, the task force offered an online survey community members could and can continue to fill out with their concerns and suggestions regarding safe spaces for artists. Users can remain anonymous—a feature established to address the concern that identification or participation in the meetings could make unpermitted DIY spaces vulnerable to eviction.

Deacon and City Councilman Ryan Dorsey (3rd District), who spoke as a member of the public, said they'd heard from multiple sources that certain DIY spaces had gotten wind of imminent city inspections they fear will leave them in the same situation as the tenants of the Bell Foundry. Baltimore Fire Department Assistant Chief Teresa Everett and acting Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, both present for the public forum, denied that any inspections specifically targeting artist spaces were planned or taking place. Everett emphasized that "there is no list" of artist spaces kept by her department: Buildings are categorized by occupancy—residential, commercial, etc.

"These spaces exist and they're not homes, they're not just workspaces and they're not residential, they're not industrial—it's a gray area, it's a new paradigm of space that doesn't exist," Deacon said, adding that he fears many DIY spaces will be shuttered as a result of the apparent inspections by the time the task force hands over its recommendations to the mayor. But it's not that the Fire Department is targeting artist-run spaces, he said: Among other possible explanations for the inspections, there's talk of people with political motivations tipping off the Fire Department in an effort to get those spaces shut down—to silence what they see as incubators of leftist action.

Deacon and others encouraged a moratorium on evictions, citing the work of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36. Schaff issued an executive order that protects tenants in unpermitted spaces from eviction (unless that space poses an immediate threat) while the owners get the spaces up to code.

Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and leader of the task force's artist space needs work group, highlighted two new GBCA projects as resources for members of the DIY community looking for a new place to occupy or hold events. SpaceFinder Baltimore, which launched in July, is a free online tool developed by Fractured Atlas to help users find venues and live/work spaces that meet their needs and book events at locations around the city. The other project, still in the works but soon to come, is a collaboration between the GBCA and the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places to create inventories of historic religious properties that are up to code and available for use to artists and organizers for below market rates.

In agreement with several community members, task force members Elissa Blount Moorhead, artist and executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment District, and Stewart Watson, artist and co-owner of Oliver Street studios and Area 405, stressed the importance of amplifying and revitalizing existing institutions, buildings, and projects. Current Space and Le Mondo, neighbors in the Bromo District on N. Howard Street, were repeatedly cited as "unicorns," rare artist-run projects to achieve ownership of their respective buildings whose processes should be looked at as models. Current Space, a perennial art gallery and performance venue, is working to expand into the building next door; Le Mondo, a new mixed-use artist space, is set to open in the late spring in three newly renovated buildings. 

"I hope that we can teach [each other] how this is already being done and how existing work can be supported as opposed to thinking about words like what's going to be 'given' or 'created' for us," said Moorhead. "We don't actually need that; what we really need is equity, access, and clear and navigable tools to do what we already do."

The task force expects to present their recommendations, based on their discussions and input from the community, to Mayor Catherine Pugh sometime in the middle of this year, according to task force co-chair Jon Laria, a real estate lawyer. Members of the public can find the schedule for the remaining meetings on the task force's website.

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