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Targeting Investment in the Arts: Part 1

Topic CDFIs

Artists value the process of remaking space and help reveal the potential for recovery inherent in many urban neighborhoods. In both the redevelopment of discrete buildings and incremental renewal of large districts, they provide entrepreneurial energy to the task of preserving something old through the development of something new.

In Baltimore, Reinvestment Fund is developing a strategy to target investment in the arts to low-income communities in Central Baltimore, where it can catalyze and build on other complementary efforts. For one year, our Creative Placemaking Fellow, Rebecca Chan, was charged with the task of developing best practices for financing the arts in distressed neighborhoods in ways that build community among both new and existing residents. Her case study is Baltimore and what follows is the first in a 4-part series on her work. This work is supported by The Kresge and Surdna Foundations’ Catalyzing Culture and Community through CDFIs, or C4, a joint initiative intended to help support and expand CDFIs involvement in creative placemaking.

Part 1: Understanding Baltimore’s art scene

When we think about the role of art in cities and neighborhoods, we often equate the arts and culture with bolstering the tourism economy. While cultural tourism certainly has its benefits, the arts provide so much more than an authentic experience for travelers; upon further examination, we can see the deeper role that artists and the creative community occupy in the remaking and reenvisioning of neighborhoods and cities across the country, and, perhaps more importantly, connecting the people that make these places worth inhabiting.

I am fortunate to live and work in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite being located in one of the wealthiest states in the nation, Baltimore continues to struggle with issues of income, education, and health disparities, widespread vacancy, and the lingering effects of decades of redlining and racial discrimination, all of which came to a boiling point during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising.

Despite these challenges, I am hopeful for the future of Baltimore, in large part because of its dynamic arts and cultural scene. In Baltimore, and in legacy cities like it across the country, we are seeing the transformative value that artists and cultural producers can have in neighborhood revitalization and, ultimately, comprehensive community development.

In the following paragraphs we’ll take a look at a sample of artists, organizations, projects, and spaces that are loosely affiliated with the Station North Arts & Entertainment District in Baltimore. This is only a small cross section of what is happening across the city, but will give readers a taste of the ways in which art builds a complex web of community-based activity that goes far beyond the traditional idea of art as tourism.

Baltimore-based electronic and dance musician Dan Deacon playing a free show on a vacant lot.
Photo credit: Theresa Keil for Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

One of Baltimore’s great strengths is its nationally recognized and emerging creative talent that remains accessible to artists and non-artists alike. Take Dan Deacon, a Baltimore-based electronic and dance musician; Deacon recently returned from a national tour with Miley Cyrus, has played played at Carnegie Hall, and was recently featured on an episode of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. Similarly, Baltimore Club musician TT the Artist, has collaborated with Diplo, was sampled by Jennifer Lopez and recently played to a crowd of 50,000 at Coachella music festival. Despite their growing success, both artists continue to play shows in Baltimore’s venues, including this free show on a vacant lot in Baltimore’s  Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

Artists Katey Truhn’s and Jessie Unterhalter’s mural for Open Walls Baltimore 2012. Photo credit: Martha Cooper

The creative community in Baltimore does a great job of working with vacant and underutilized spaces. For example, in the 2012 Open Walls Baltimore international street art festival included a small underutilized city park as one of its sites. The OWB project management team, recognizing that the walls bounding the park could not be painted, selected two local artists, Katey Truhn and Jessie Unterhalter, to paint a colorful and geometric mural on the park’s pavement. The benefits of this small investment were threefold: in addition to dramatically beautifying the park, the artists were able to raise their professional profile (their work was featured in the New York Times, and the artists were subsequently asked to participate in a number of other festivals), and the community association that manages the park was able to leverage the small investment in the mural to raise additional funds for garbage cans, benches, and other improvements. Today, the park is frequently used in both active (e.g. small festivals, planned events, etc.) and passive (e.g. walkers, people sitting on benches, etc.) ways.

Spanish artist Escif’s mural for Open Walls Baltimore 2014. Photo credit: M. Holden Warren

The arts in Baltimore are also great at changing and reversing negative narratives. In the 2014 edition of Open Walls Baltimore, Spanish artist Escif, who traveled to Baltimore to participate in the festival, painted an enormous yellow smiley face on an 80-foot wall in a neighborhood with high vacancy rates and rundown buildings. While this mural may seem silly, it also went viral on Instagram, receiving over one million “likes” from a global audience. These positive media impressions help to change the narrative about Baltimore, and more specifically the reputation of a neighborhood often unfortunately highlighted for crime, vacancy and blight.

FORCE’s viral social media prank around consent themed underwear.
Photo credit: FORCE – Upsetting Rape Culture

Baltimore’s artists and art scene are also activists. Baltimore-based artist collective known as FORCE – Upsetting Rape Culture, used the power of social media for a viral panty prank, in which they pretended to be Victoria’s Secret promoting consent themed slogans on underwear. FORCE also tricked the internet into believing that Playboy had released an updated anti-rape party school guide dubbed, “The Ultimate Guide to a Consensual Good Time,” opening up dialogue around consent and sexual violence. FORCE is currently working on the Monument Quilt, a monument to survivors of sexual violence, which will be displaying on the National Mall in 2017.

Photographer Devin Allen and his photo on the cover of Time. Photo credit:

Along the same lines, Devin Allen is a self taught Baltimore-based photographer who has become famous for his documentation of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising. His photos, both during and in the months following the Uprising, have been published in Time magazine, the Washington Post,  and numerous other publications, and have been displayed in museums and galleries, showing the way that Baltimore-based artistic talent has also contributed to the documentation and healing of a city during a tumultuous and pivotal time for the city. In addition to his professional photography, Allen teaches photography to youth in Baltimore.

Baltimore-based electronic and dance musician Dan Deacon playing a free show on a vacant lot.
Photo credit: Theresa Keil for Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

The arts also bring people together, providing community cohesion. Whoop Dee Doo is a group that takes over a space for about a month at a time and creates a community-based talent show highlighting its host neighborhood’s talents. Whoop Dee Doo was in residence at Gallery CA, located in the City Arts Apartments (TRF Development Partners was among its developers), and presented a talent show based on the unique expertise and abilities of surrounding Greenmount West residents.

The Ynot Lot. Photo credit: Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc.

The Ynot Lot is a great example of the ways in which art and performance can be incorporated into the development of interim use of space, and be a great end user of said space. The Ynot Lot was vacant for several years, occupying a critical intersection within the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. With a small amount of seed funding to make basic improvements and a short-term lease from the property owner, the lot was outfitted as an outdoor event space. The same lot was used for a Big Freedia concert, drawing approximately 4,000 people to the lot who spilled into the intersection—quite a change from when it was vacant and under-utilized!

Arts and culture takes various forms and influences many facets of public life in Baltimore. It’s not always “art for art’s sake” but also art as community development, activism, healing, and neighborhood revitalization. As we think about community development in Baltimore, and cities like it across the country, art and culture is the glue that binds communities together, and remains an integral part of holistic community development.

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