A while back, the Washington Post had a nice series of articles on DC’s neighbor to the north. Baltimore tends to be associated in the popular imagination with the kind of frightening crime depicted on TV shows like The Wire (frankly, it doesn’t exactly give one confidence when cabbies have signs saying “DRIVER CARRIES NO MORE THAN $5.00 IN CASH” plastered across their vehicles). As is the case with many northeastern industrial cities, however, things have more recently started to move in a more positive direction, and the arts seem to be playing a key role. Blake Gopnik’s article on the loft scene for visual artists in the city addresses this trend most directly:
In 2002, after almost a decade of precarious under-the-radar loft living — Watson cites the time her leg went through the floor, as well as the drawbacks of sharing space with a peanut roaster — she found six partners, scraped together $170,000 and bought a 66,000-square-foot factory once used to make Venetian blinds, in the rough neighborhood behind the train station. The area has since been christened the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
The partners now rent studios to something like 25 artists. And that still leaves room for Watson, who is 41, to store her 1948 Chevy truck in a gymnasium-size room where she and her artist-husband weld their sculptures.
All this mixing of bohemian and sober, of art and music and theater and film, suggests another possibility: that it’s the scene itself, in all its fascinating complexity, that is the true work of art in Baltimore. These days, the idea of counting “life” as “art” has the grand name of “relational aesthetics,” and it’s a bit of a Baltimore specialty. Last year’s Sondheim winner was a collective whose “works” included a community garden in east Baltimore, as well as a scruffy little pavilion outside the BMA that came with an open invitation for groups to hold events in it.
“I like to think that the definition of art is expansive enough that the community could exist as the artwork,” says Hileman.
Even more interesting to me, however, was Anne Midgette’s story on what appears to be a thriving menu of operatic offerings in Charm City. You might remember that the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera was among the first arts-related casualties of the Great Recession, and at the time there was much gnashing of teeth over how many more established institutions would bite the dust and how many cities would become artistic orphans as a result. Merely 18 months later, however, there are “at least seven opera companies, maybe more,” of which “more than half…started this season.”
They offer young local singers, nontraditional stagings and in some cases unusual repertory — such as the stripped-down adaptation of “Madame Butterfly” for prepared piano and electric gamelan orchestra that American Opera Theater will present on a double bill with Messiaen’s “Harawi” in 2010-11. And they are definitely playing to a new audience.
“The growth has been in unexpected areas,” says Tim Nelson, who founded American Opera Theater in 2002. “Twenty-five-to-40-year-olds; people from less affluent, less educated backgrounds.”
“We took a survey at our second-to-last show,” says Beth Stewart, a soprano who founded Chesapeake Concert Opera, which performs in a church in Bolton Hill. “Tons of people said, ‘We weren’t really into opera before. Now we are.’ “
As Midgette points out, most of the new companies are run on a shoestring, and their success to date is to some degree possible only because it’s so damn hard for singers to make it anywhere but Baltimore, ensuring that the local talent pool remains high-quality. Caveats aside, though, I think this is a good lesson to remember when we worry about the impact the recession may be having on specific organizations. Change is always difficult, and certainly is not always for the best. But in this case it appears that the void left by the dissolution of the Baltimore Opera was quickly filled by at least four new companies collectively boasting more innovative programming and performances with appeal to a more diverse audience than ever before. Which raises the question: was the existence of the Baltimore Opera actually standing in the way of that innovation the whole time?
It’s an important thought to consider as we ponder how to offer stewardship to the arts community as a whole. As scary and depressing as the recession can be, sometimes starting all over again is the right thing to do.