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Make Arts Districts More Accessible

Photo: Illustrations by Tom Chalkley, License: N/A

Illustrations by Tom Chalkley

Through the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the city has three great arts districts—Station North, Highlandtown, and the new Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District—but it’s often unclear what such a designation means and what difference it might make in the lives of residents or artists. When we asked gallery owners or artists in the recently designated Bromo Tower arts district how the designation has benefited them, they said that it hasn’t.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she’s banking on artists—really what Richard Florida calls the “creative class”—to bring 10,000 families to the city. To even hope to do that, we need to do a better job helping and promoting the arts districts. A recent economic-impact study showed that Baltimore’s arts districts support over 4,000 jobs, but if the districts were more visible, more connected, and more incentivized, they could conceivably do much, much better.

In April, Rawlings-Blake announced that the three arts districts would receive a $200,000 ArtPlace America grant to support “placemaking” with European-style transportation in the arts districts. This comes together with a Goethe Institut collaboration called Transit, which will help bring European artists to Baltimore to create shelters at the bus stops in the arts districts.

We were really excited about this at first, hoping that the city might create something like European transit, i.e. functional mass transit between districts. Instead, the program is far more limited and offers no actual transportation solutions (though it does add covered bus stops in the arts districts, which allows you to wait more comfortably for hours on the bus you need to catch). But imagine: Something like a Charm City Circulator line—a free bus—that runs regularly and late at night and connects each of the three arts districts. Such a line would make it easier for artists to collaborate; bring gallerists, collectors, and others from around the world; and make it easier for businesses to turn a profit in the districts. A collector, say, could get off at Penn Station and spend a day visiting galleries and studios, without having to either rent a car or navigate the highly unreliable MTA. In addition, average citizens who need to commute between these three generally working-class neighborhoods could use the line to save money and time on transportation. Marketed correctly, the Arts Circulator could become a premier attraction for tourists looking to experience our burgeoning arts communities.

One of the problems with arts districts is that artists are poor. They bring the “sweat equity” but find it hard to capitalize on that sweat and are eventually forced out. Better promotion of, and transportation to, the arts districts could help bring in people who might spend money buying the work of artists or supporting their careers, and not only people who want to buy the buildings they’ve fixed up.

Instead of having three arts-district pockets, we could use the synergy between the districts to begin to create an actual infrastructure around the arts. Such an infrastructure could have a lasting impact on the neighborhoods surrounding the arts districts and the city as a whole.

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