Catherine Pugh discusses the Safe Art Space Task Force with John Laria to her left. / Photo by Brandon Block

Almost exactly one year after the eviction of DIY space the Bell Foundry, Mayor Catherine Pugh stood alongside the co-chairs of her Safe Art Space Task Force on Dec. 20, touted the “economic value” of artists, and praised the potential for vacant properties to be turned into venues, among other recommendations that are supposed to “create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, living, live/work, studio, and performance space for established and emerging artists,” according to the task force’s website.

Task force co-chairs Jon Laria, a real estate lawyer, and Franklin McNeil, a banker, were joined by a handful of task force members including Jeannie Howe, president of Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA), and Amy Bonitz, president of Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO), both of whom chaired task force working groups.

Pugh was particularly excited about the idea of repurposing abandoned school buildings into art spaces. She wanted to explore “some of the schools that we’re giving up,” she said, as a result of the vote last week to close five underperforming and low-enrollment Baltimore City schools and redistribute the students to other nearby schools.

The idea of repurposing abandoned schools was floated in the task force meetings earlier in the year and was met with skepticism from some.

“In theory that could be cool,” artist Vin Seadler, who maintained studio space at the Bell Foundry for two years, told me back in June. “But it’s just like why don’t we just make the schools fucking work, because the children are our future and that’s more important than my band being able to play somewhere or have a show.”

Laria talked about the progress the task force had made since it began meeting in January, shortly after the abrupt eviction of residents of the Bell Foundry, which was followed by a flurry of inspections of other DIY venues around the city and nationwide. At the time, the task force was criticized for not including anybody from the Bell Foundry, and nobody from the Bell was present on the stage on Wednesday, and Pugh, Laria, and McNeil made no direct reference to the space, which is now for sale for a million dollars.

“[The task force] has responded to owners of art spaces both who came forward voluntarily, as well as in response to reports,” Laria said.

One of the art spaces that came forward “in response to reports” is the Compound, a DIY live/work space that the task force has worked with since a city inspection found code compliance issues early this year. Much of that work—providing technical and legal assistance to art spaces like the Compound about things like zoning requirements and building codes—has been done by BARCO, and specifically Bonitz, who has acted on behalf of the task force as a sort of liaison between art spaces and the city.

The press conference was initially scheduled to take place at the Compound and was later moved to City Hall, and only two of the Compound’s residents were present at Wednesday’s press conference. Despite winning a $200,000 state grant that was unrelated to the task force, the Compound’s fate remains unclear as it continues to face serious fundraising challenges in order to get the space up to code. CORE, a separate state grant the Compound applied for but did not receive, averaged $600,000 based on figures for 2018 awardees.

“Technical assistance to artists and art spaces is probably the thing that came out most in the process,” Laria said. He also stressed that funding would be necessary for “gap financing,” meaning existing spaces like the Compound that must make structural improvements in order to continue living at their spaces.

When the Beat asked if the report recommended that the city commit public funds to art spaces that want to get up to code, Pugh redirected to private funding, one of her frequent talking points. She mentioned the $5 million donation given by Bloomberg Philanthropies earlier this month for crime fighting technology as an example.

“The city can’t solve all the problems financially,” she said. “But we certainly have the capacity and ability to reach out, and we will continue to do that, and we’ll look to see what we have in public funding as well.”

No specific funding sources have been identified for any of the recommended programs.

While the recommendations implicate DIY spaces and the things they need to escape the fear of closure, they don’t move the needle on any of the intractable language barriers between the DIY art community and city government. What was lost amid the rhetoric at the press conference and in the task force’s recommendations—a focus on assisting the already existing work of local artists, whose living and studio spaces are in very real and vulnerable situations.

Many of the recommendations presented at the press conference were similar to a list provided to me by the mayor’s office in October. These included the recommendation to “fund or seek third party funding” for a technical assistance program that would help art spaces “navigate what is a complex regulatory process,” plus offer design resources and advice for grant or loan applications, Laria said.

Another previously released clause recommended the creation of an inter-agency art space resource team (ARTeam) that would “inventory current issues and art spaces now in need of assistance,” according to an email from the mayor’s office.

Laria also said the task force had also “identified several” code and regulatory changes “that will facilitate the creation of mixed-use art spaces,” meaning live/work spaces.

The task force also recommended explorating the creation of new arts districts, such as one in the historic African-American cultural district along Pennsylvania Avenue in Penn-North.

Other recommendations included developing a “business plan” to make city-owned property, especially “vacant and underutilized spaces,” available for development into art spaces, as well as to “promote and link artists to already existing resources and databases,” including the GBCA’s SpaceFinder and Art in Sacred Places.

After speeches from the co-chairs, Pugh thanked the task force, then gently chastised them for delays.

“I was wondering when y’all was gonna get it together,” she joked to Laria in a loud-enough quasi-whisper.

The recommendations, however, have been largely in place for months already according to task force members and chairs.

“We’ve all sent our recommendations in for the draft,” Howe, chair of the Artists’ Needs work group, told me in June. In early September, Bonitz told me that the recommendations had been “fully vetted by city agencies and presented to the mayor,” and task force members confirmed that they had sent their final comments in around that time as well. In late September, Pugh’s spokesperson Anthony McCarthy wrote that the mayor was “looking forward to receiving a report,” and when pressed for clarification wrote that, “the report is in its final stages of production.”

When I spoke to Laria and McNeil a few weeks ago, they said that the delays were due to back and forth with the mayor’s office, and not an indication of neglect by the mayor’s staff.

“We want more emerging artists in Baltimore,” Pugh said. “We want the art community to feel more than welcome to be a part of our city, and I’m really excited about just my preliminary look at the report.”

At the presser, Pugh also noted that she had not yet read the Safe Art Space Task Force’s report.

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