At last year’s Alternative Art Fair during Artscape, Margo Benson Malter of artists collective Open Space got to yell at a cop for riding his bike around the Charles Street parking garage. She says it was “cool to boss cops around, a cool opportunity.” And Nick Peelor had an hour-and-a-half-long conversation with a very frustrated and drunk engineer who wanted him to explain to her what the artwork meant. “I feel like that conversation would normally not happen at one of our openings,” Peelor says.
It was the first year of the Alternative Art Fair (this year it’s called the Artist-Run Art Fair), and though it was mainly organized by Malter and Peelor, all nine or so members of Open Space worked the event. It was a cool injection of contemporary art into the country’s biggest free arts festival, where the focus is diffused across the endless roster of musical performances, art vendors, food stuff, theater, performance art, and day-drinking. For an art festival in Baltimore, where artist-run galleries seem to outnumber commercial galleries, it seemed like an effective way to better represent the art scene here.
It’s tough work to maintain a space or collective, and Open Space has been at it since 2009. Most of its members lived at the former space in Remington, which was above an auto repair shop, where they curated art shows and music performances and planned the annual Publications and Multiples Fair (PMF). In the spring of 2013 there was a fire in the garage below, which displaced all the members and disrupted programming for nearly a year and a half (except for its annual Publications and Multiples Fair and the Alternative Art Fair). But then they reopened at 512 W. Franklin St. in Seton Hill last fall, and have since gotten back into putting on shows. And PMF, in its sixth year this past March, was the biggest yet, hosted in the Baltimore Design School with about 120 vendors. They do all of this in addition to their day jobs (teaching preschool, art handling, bartending, to name a few) and keeping up with their own artistic practices. Colin Alexander and Allie Linn also co-run, with friends, another space nearby called bb.
“Even when you were asking what our day jobs are,” Linn says, “bb was the first thing that popped in my head, even though it’s smaller.”
(Disclosures: It’s hard to have zero conflicts of interest here because of the openness of Open Space, the variety of groups they work with, and the nature of Baltimore’s arts community, but I’m friends/former classmates with Allie Linn, Colin Alexander, and Anna Crooks, with whom I am also studio neighbors at Platform, which is one of the spaces presenting at the fair. Platform Gallery is co-run by my friends and roommate Lydia Pettit and former roommate Abigail Parrish.)
With so many people involved and so many changes, it might seem difficult to organize a single show, let alone a big festival or fair, but Open Space is making it work.
They meet every week, beginning each meeting with their “weekly bests,” Malter says, where they share the best thing that happened.
“For me this is probably what a church is like,” Peelor says. “It’s like a thing that’s bigger than myself.”
“An AA meeting,” Open Space member Nick Vyssotsky offers.
“That you can drink at,” Peelor says, picking up a Gatorade bottle of watered-down wine that he and Malter are sharing.
After some discussion of Tim Kreider’s New York Times piece about his fun times in Baltimore in the ’90s, wherein he calls Baltimoreans lazy (but “saner,” and more “creative” than “more ambitious” D.C.ers and New Yorkers who have left Baltimore to make more money or something), the conversation turns toward money and art.
Last year, Malter recounts, when out-of-towner Corinna Kirsch from Art F City wrote about the Alternative Art Fair, “she was just like really dumbfounded by the fact that people just helped us do it, like she was trying to figure out how it happened.”
“I think something in Baltimore that is obvious is that people are willing to make cool work without being paid for it,” Anna Crooks says, “and then also, people who have money don’t necessarily have good taste, or like things that are cool, so why should we make something lame just so we can get paid for it, you know? We’d rather make something cool until someone figures out that they like it.”
“That format of article,” Alexander says, referring to Kreider’s piece, “has become really ubiquitous lately just ’cause like D.C. and New York wanna have a sightseeing affair. It’s just like, if you guys wanna be here—”
“You can just hang out here,” Crooks says.
The Alternative Art Fair seemed to spring up naturally. Malter and Peelor say that, although they love PMF, their own art practices and interests lean more towards gallery work. So they went to Art Basel in Miami and NADA in New York a few years ago. Around 2012, they got to talking to CP contributor Michael Farley, who suggested something like an art fair would be cool to have at Artscape, to offset all the vendors and participatory art projects set up around the area.
But practically speaking, founding the fair had a little to do with Peelor and Malter being friends with Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA). Peelor had been talking to C. Ryan Patterson, BOPA’s public arts adminstrator, about applying for a job there, and mentioned that he was interested in putting together an art fair. When Peelor didn’t get the job, Patterson still followed up with them on the fair.
So with a little help from BOPA, some donated walls from MICA, and space in the parking garage from Mike Shecter (who owns it) and Marian Glebes (who runs programming in the garage during Artscape), the inaugural Alternative Art Fair came into being. They estimate about 50,000 people perused the fair last year, which hosted about 15 local or regional artist-run spaces and groups who curated exhibitions, put on performances, and sold zines and publications. It was like a combination of Open Space’s PMF and their gallery shows, but with a much bigger audience than they normally have.
This year there will be 15 artist-run spaces, collectives, and performance groups mostly from Baltimore, with a few from New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. New this year—and diversifying a lineup that is mostly artist-run spaces—are the dance collective Akimbo and FORCE, a group that is famous for its guerrilla-style efforts in talking about sexual assault and empowering survivors, particularly with the Monument Quilt.
Working with a variety of groups, too, ensures different responses from the general public, who may or may not typically be interested in contemporary art.
“It’s a fun audience too because people aren’t super serious like you’d be in a museum,” Malter says. “Some of them are drunk, some of them are with small children that are running around and eating popsicles, so it’s a very different context to be with contemporary art.”
“I have no idea if anyone who went to that had a good experience and sought out any galleries after that or anything,” Peelor says. “But maybe. I just want it to be like, this stuff exists in Baltimore or, you know, this stuff exists in the world.”