. . . or as close to gratis as you’re going to get in Baltimore
Published: August 29, 2011
As any college student knows, it’s easy to restrict yourself to the campus bubble. Schoolwork is tiring enough; who has time to think about the outside world, much less explore it? Kids in New Haven may have the luxury of using this excuse, but if you chose to live in Baltimore for four years and have yet to see anything but the Inner Harbor and your bedroom walls, shame on you.
Charm City has long been a creative nest for all artistic disciplines, and it doesn’t aim to die down soon. But it retains a slower pace that separates it from giants such as New York or San Francisco, where the cost of living and expectation of grandeur can place a desire to make money over the importance of creative integrity. Plus, having so many colleges and universities around encourages many promoters, artists, and venues alike to keep their prices low in order to cater to the city’s main demographic. The following list of cheap cultural things to do around Baltimore is by no means exhaustive, and we encourage you to dig out fresh venues and hideaways of your own—or, hey, browse weekly.citypaper.com every week—but for the B’more n00b, here are the places to check out first.
Your friends will beg you to shell out $50 to see Animal Collective from the field at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, so far from the stage you need to watch the giant screen to see Avey Tare’s face. But you’re broke and without a car. Luckily you have some cheap, convenient alternatives for any night on the town. Just a few blocks from Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus, the Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St.,  662-0069, theottobar.com) offers something for almost all music lovers, hosting hip-hop emcees and hardcore groups one after the other (many shows are all ages), as well as weekly theme nights ranging from Metal Mondays to Kowli Nights, the techno- and house- bumpin’ Thursday party. With cheap drinks and most show tickets under $15, this is a prime spot.
If the scene is more your speed, the Windup Space (12 W. North Ave.,  244-8855, thewindupspace.com) is always full of horn-rimmed glasses and ironic mustaches, despite its location on a once nearly deserted stretch of one of Baltimore’s faded main drags. Regardless, the Windup boasts local art on the walls, a friendly vibe, and plenty of music, not least the free Out of Your Head jazz/improv blowout every Tuesday.
For the crusty street punks, nothing beats the Sidebar Tavern (218 E. Lexington St.,  659-4130, sidebartavern.com). Great drink specials, all-ages shows under $10, and a central location make this the ideal dive bar. For classical and jazz aficionados, An die Musik (409 N. Charles St.,  385-2638, andiemusiklive.com) is the spot for LP shopping and performances from both local players and world-famous touring musicians. The ticket prices aren’t always budget, but the venue is very good about offering student discounts to most shows (win!).
If you’re searching for something a little more out of the ordinary and uncooked, Baltimore boasts a number of ad hoc spaces, many of them studio or living spaces transformed into venues every now and then. Many of them are clustered in Station North, but Floristree Space (myspace.com/floristree) is probably the epitome of the local collective space. It’s fairly big and has hosted a variety of local (Future Islands) and out-of-town (Dirty Projectors) bands that draw big crowds, as well as all kinds of less “name” artists who make finding your way there worth the effort. Chill atmosphere and $5 tickets are definite perks, but keep in mind you’re in someone’s house.
There are many more venues of all types, sizes, and price points. As always, weekly.citypaper.com features weekly listings of the vast numbers and types of shows at venues large and small, spendy and cheap, of all different stripes and all over the metro area.
Most of the movie screens in the Baltimore area sit clumped together in multiplexes way out in the suburbs. The thing is, many of the same movies play in theaters that are closer, and often cheaper. Not far from Hopkins, the Rotunda Cinematheque (711 W. 40th St.,  235-5554) runs three current releases at a time; tickets are about $8. Tuesday nights are $5, however, so be sure to show up early before they sell out. The historic Senator Theater (5904 York Road,  323-4424, thesenatortheatre.com), located between Loyola University/College of Notre Dame and Towson University, only has one screen, but its throwback feel makes a great date spot. The Charles Theatre (1711 N. Charles St.,  727-3456, thecharles.com), a block away from Penn Station and not far from University of Baltimore and MICA, is the city’s longtime art house, with programming that spans indie and foreign titles as well as big-box-office hits. If your secret dream was to be a character from Grease, head out to Bengies (3417 Eastern Blvd., Middle River, (410) 391-1956, bengies.com), one of the few drive-in theaters left. Admission varies from $5-$9, which gets you in to all three showings on any given weekend during its season, plus the old-school snack bar has to be seen to be believed.
The warmer months also bring myriads of free outdoor film screenings in various parts of the city, including but not limited to Flicks on the Hill at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway,  244-1900, avam.org) with classics and crowd pleasers (selections this past summer included Some Like It Hot and Austin Powers: Man of Mystery); the Hopkins Summer Outdoor Films fest, with showings on the Upper Quad in the heart of Homewood Campus (jhu.edu/summer/films); and Fells Point’s Films on the Pier series (Broadway Pier, fellspointdevelopment.org), which tends to focus on recent hits. There are any number of cheap/free indoor film-screenings series hosted during the rest of the year, including active programming at Towson and Hopkins, so check weekly.citypaper.com for weekly updates.
The big comprehensive museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive,  573-1700, artbma.org) and the Walters Art Museum (600 N. Charles St.,  547-9000, thewalters.org), have free admission, and the “outsider art” mecca the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Hwy., (410) 244-1900, avam.org) is free on Thursday nights. But Baltimore’s art scene, like most of its other creative scenes, has deep roots in smaller, more DIY venues, and there’s almost always an opening, closing-night event, or ongoing show worth taking in.
Squashed between Charles Village and Mount Vernon, the Station North neighborhood is home to a plethora of thriving arts spaces: The Copy Cat Building (1511 Guilford Ave.) is home/studio to local artists of all levels and disciplines, and it frequently serves as a gallery/venue for the artists-in-residence. Charm City Art Space (1729 Maryland Ave., ccspace.org) also serves as both art and music space, and has early, all-ages shows that greatly suit student schedules and age restrictions. 1448 (1448 E. Baltimore St.,  327-1554, 1448.org) is a co-op that exhibits the work of its tenants and is open to the public over the weekends. MICA (1300 W. Mount Royal Ave.,  225-2433, mica.edu), of course, feeds a lot of this activity, and the campus itself hosts dozens of shows and performances, many of them free.
There are other sweet galleries in pretty much every corner of the city, most of them free as well. Some hidden faves include Open Space (2720 Sisson St., openspacebaltimore.com), literally hidden as the outside looks like an auto body shop, and the Hamilton Arts Collective (5502 Harford Road,  205-5027, hamiltonarts.org), whose location toward the city’s northeast corner enables its artists to look to other parts of Baltimore for inspiration. The Art section of City Paper’s weekly calendar is nearly as big as the Clubs/Concerts section and keeps track of current exhibits and showings.
Baltimore is going through something of a theater/performance renaissance, and, again, much of it’s happening in younger companies and upstart spaces that provoke and have fun as a matter of course, all for low, low prices. The Strand Theater (1823 N. Charles St.,  874-4917, strandtheatercompany.org) supports women in all theatrical aspects, while the long-running Theatre Project (45 W. Preston St.,  752-8558, theatreproject.org) connects Baltimore artists and audiences to global experimentation. The building at the corner of North Avenue and Howard Street, not far from MICA and UB, is a hive of theatrical activity: Run of the Mill (LOFt, 120 W. North Ave., runofthemilltheater.org) produces new and lesser-known plays and features tickets at $15 a pop; Single Carrot Theatre (122 W. North Ave.,  844-9253, singlecarrot.com) supports local artists and hosts educational programs in schools throughout the summer; and Glass Mind Theatre (also LOFt, 120 W.North Ave., glassmindtheatre.com) emphasizes interaction with its audience and the greater Baltimore community to create original and fresh works. In addition to Baltimore’s handful of professional theater companies—chief among them Center Stage (700 N. Calvert St.,  332-0033, centerstage.org) and Everyman Theatre (1727 N. Charles St.,  752-2208, everymantheatre.org)—the city features plenty of community theaters, including Fells Point Corner Theatre (251 S. Ann St.,  276-7837, fpct.org), which helps organize the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival and hosts workshops and education programs for disadvantaged youth.
City Paper regularly lists readings and events in various bookstores around the city, including Hampden’s Atomic Books (3620 Falls Road,  662-4444, atomicbooks.com), which is not far from Hopkins (and co-owned by occasional City Paper contributor Benn Ray), and the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble (3330 St. Paul St.,  662-5850, johns-hopkins.bncollege.com), which is right off campus. Normal’s Books and Records (425 E. 31st St.,  243-6888, normals.com), also near Hopkins, rarely hosts readings on site, but it’s a hub of all sorts of literary shenanigans, as well as a great resource for affordable reading material. And then there’s the semi-legendary Book Thing (3001 Vineyard Lane,  662-5631, bookthing.org), which specializes in free reading material. Yes, that’s right, free books, and a lot of them. Meanwhile, up in Baltimore County near the Towson and Goucher campuses, Ukazoo (730 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson,  832-2665, ukazoo.com) features the occasional reading or workshop along with shelf after shelf of used books.
To not delve into the Baltimore arts scene while in school should become a state crime. Whether you lean more toward jazz or crust-punk, painting or video art, classical theater or improv, there are great things happening in every discipline, pretty much anywhere in the city. All you need are the time and patience to explore. You’ll never describe Baltimore as “boring” again.
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