Is Baltimore's DIY Art Scene Being Killed Off?
After the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, a series of high-profile venue closures in the low-profile scene have shown the kind of ugly aftereffects a national tragedy can bring.
Gallery patrons gather at Baltimore's Alloverstreet. Screenshot via Bmoreart
Not long ago, Baltimore was a bubbling hub of DIY artistic activity. There was Alloverstreet, the monthly art walk that visitors could stroll with a crisp, cold Natty Boh. Shows were frequent and eye-opening at the penthouse of the H&H arts building. Spaces like the Platform Gallery frequently hosted the best of the city's contemporary artists. But these days, only a handful of similar DIY venues are left, all thanks to the forced closure of the Bell Foundry, an old factory converted into a DIY living space for young artists and musicians, last winter.
On December 2, 2016, the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, went up in flames; the fire ignited during a dance party and wound up taking 36 lives. The shared artist space served as illegal housing for up to 25 tenants and played host to a variety of shows and events; Alameda County district attorney Nancy O'Malley said its landlords and tenants "knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape," and hadn't had the building inspected in over thirty years. This June, the warehouse's "creative director," Max Harris, was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The fire sparked a national dialogue about spaces like Ghost Ship: often illegal and dilapidated communities in cities across the US that play home to artists, musicians, and other creative types (and their exhibitions, performances, meetings, and parties). Almost immediately, fire officials began shutting down similar spaces across the country, from Los Angeles to Nashville. In Denver, DIY spaces like Rhinoceropolis and the Glob were evicted in a campaign beginning on December 8. And just days after the Ghost Ship tragedy, Baltimore condemned the Bell Foundry as unsafe.
That Monday, fire officials invaded the warehouse and demanded all tenants vacate the premises within an hour. Fire department spokesman Roman Clark claimed they'd been tipped off by a complaint that morning about the building; according to Clark, inspectors then found "numerous safety violations as well as deplorable conditions." They did not expressly link the Bell Foundry's closure with the Ghost Ship fire.
Besides being a live/work space for artists, the Bell Foundry functioned as a venue for live musicians, theatre troupes and more. Joseph McNeely told the Baltimore Sun he purchased the building alongside Charles Lankford in 2006, then tried to convert it into a mix of studio space and residences. McNeely said that, after that plan was made unsustainable by the burst of the housing bubble, he and Lankford began renting (non-residential) studios to artists on two year leases. For years it functioned as a place for marginalized people and artists throughout Baltimore to live and work, all thrown out with only an hour to pack their things, according to Baltimore's alternative weekly City Paper.
Since the Bell Foundry's closing, Baltimore's DIY arts scene has taken a number of blows. Notably, Alloverstreet went on hiatus this February, in an effort organizers said was intended to minimize the vulnerability of participating artists. The monthly gathering was hosted in the Copycat building, another old warehouse functioning as an artist's space, home to most of the participating galleries. "I was getting messages from the building's management that we needed to lay low," said Kimi Hanauer, the former co-director of the program. "People were also getting scared about getting evicted, since Bell happened right down the street." Copycat-based galleries like Penthouse Gallery, Ballroom Gallery, and Softhouse have not announced new exhibits since July; others, like the Terrault Contemporary, relocated from the Copycat to new locations. The owner of the Copycat, Charles Lankford, did not respond to requests for comment.
The DIY scene has suffered other injuries disconnected from the Ghost Ship fire and the Bell Foundry closure. This July, City Paper announced it was shuttering; the Platform Gallery also announced their closure on Facebook over the summer, though Gallery co-founder Lydia Petit said the closure's timing was "a coincidence."
The Bell Foundry may not have been the center of Baltimore's cultural institutions, but it was a bedrock of the city's DIY scene, hosting shows from groups like the comedy collective Wham City to the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, a nonprofit organization of artists whose aim is to make theater more accessible to the public. Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh made a statement for the evicted artists by the end of the month: "Everybody needs to be included and accommodated... We believe that art is everything."
On December 21, Pugh held a press conference to announce the creation of the Safe Arts Spaces Task Force, a biweekly public forum designed to "create a citywide network of safe, cost-effective, contemporary, living, live/work, studio, and performance space for established and emerging artists," according to its website.
Some Bell Foundry residents found shelter with loved ones, and members of the community launched a GoFundMe campaign for eventual relocation and legal fees.
Vin Seadler, co-founder of the now defunct-Labodega Gallery, claims that the Bell Foundry was ultimately closed as a "political move".
"After the Ghost Ship fire, everything went underground," he said. He blamed the closure in part on an intimidation campaign by members of a 4chan's /pol/ message board. Following the Ghost Ship fire, members organized groups to shut down spaces they considered "open hotbeds of liberal radicalism".
"People on [/pol/]... started forming safety squads," Seadler continued. "They were getting minions to go out into the real world and find these spaces, and then report them to city officials." While it remains unclear how many venues were closed by the group, they've claimed success for a number of spaces, including the Bell Foundry.
Rather than deflating, Seadler said the local arts scene is just undergoing a change: "I think it's incubating," he said. "Artists adjust. They move from city to city… they will go where they need to go." Local artist and DJ Markele Cullins disagrees: "I've witnessed the scene evolve over time in a lot of ways… I've also seen the closing and discontinuing of a lot of arts spaces and events. City Paper closing… will make it hard for arts in Baltimore to receive adequate press."
The spate of gallery closures and other impacts have shown that for the time being, at least, DIY artists in Baltimore and across the country are in danger. Whether confronted by the forces of alt-right trolls or local governments struggling to find a balance between overprotective regulations and the kinds of policies that foster local creative scenes, marginalized people have, once again, paid the price for a national tragedy.
Kaila Philo is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.