Artists, City Look to the Future Post-Artist Space Closures

Members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society work and rehearse at their space in the Bell Foundry prior to its Dec. 5 closure. (Photo provided)

First it was the Bell Foundry being closed on Dec. 5. Then it was Studio 14 a month ago. Now, some are worried for the future of affordable artist spaces in Baltimore.

Both the Bell Foundry, located in Station North, and Studio 14, located on Franklintown Road in West Baltimore, were closed due to fire code violations and lack of a proper permit, displacing a number of local artists and musicians.

These closures come after the devastating fire of a warehouse-turned-artist space in Oakland, Calif., called The Ghost Ship. The building caught fire the night of Dec. 2, killing 36 people, many of whom were young artists and musicians.

The Facebook page for Baltimore Band Rehearsals, the company operating Studio 14, said that the space was undergoing major renovations and that permit applications would be filed this week. One musician affected by the closure, Asa Kurland of the band Slow Lights, said he sees the Baltimore music scene as bigger and stronger than ever, thanks in large part to spaces such as Studio 14.

“It’s like turning the lights out on your business,” he said about the closure. “[Studio 14] is a great place. It’s the best, and I can’t wait for it to come back again.”

Despite the closure, Kurland and other musicians he knows have been able to migrate and find some other temporary spaces. Looking on the bright side, he said it’s actually forced him out into the community a bit more than before. And it certainly hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for performing. The Slow Lights album release party is slated for March 25 at The 8×10.

One group in particular was hit especially hard, being displaced to some extent by both closures — the Baltimore Rock Opera Society. The DIY theater nonprofit had its main rehearsal and workshop space on the first floor of the Bell Foundry, and the BROS band practiced at Studio 14. Rubbing salt in the wound, its space at the Bell Foundry was robbed, losing an estimated $2,000 worth of tools, according to a recent Baltimore Sun story.

“[The closure] happened very suddenly,” said Aran Keating, the group’s artistic director. “I got a call from one of the upstairs residents who basically said, ‘This isn’t good. You might want to come down here.’ And I hurried over.”

Upon arrival, Keating saw the Baltimore City Fire Department on the scene.

“Everyone had this sort of grim air,” he went on. “It was pretty clear they came with the intention to close the space down.”

Compared with the more severe violations on the second floor of the space, the first floor had relatively few issues.

“We were basically collateral damage of shutting down the upstairs,” said Scott Brenner, a volunteer with the BROS.

Since the Bell Foundry closing, the BROS have had limited access to the space. Their lease goes through 2017, and the immediate focus is on getting the first floor space reopened to finish out that lease. The landlords/owners of the space, Joe McNeely and Jeremy Landsman (who the JT profiled in 2008 prior to the revelation of his involvement in a federal marijuana conspiracy case in 2012), said they anticipate the lower floor opening back up in a couple weeks, once the final inspection and permit comes through.

McNeely, speaking on behalf of both of he and Landsman, said they are looking at all their options for what to do with the site once the current lease is up. He didn’t rule out keeping some sort of artist spaces as part of the building’s future development but said it takes a lot of investment to get old buildings up to code, which then means rents are less affordable.

“The city thrives on its reputation for emerging art and music and by its nature emerging art and music is underground,” he said. “So, the question is how do cities keep these kinds of spaces in a way they’re safe and affordable?”

That’s the exact question new Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Artist Spaces Task Force will attempt to answer. The task force has held three meetings so far and is hoping to have recommendations for how the city can facilitate these spaces within six months, according to the task force’s co-chair, Jon Laria, a partner at the law firm of Ballard Spahr specializing in real estate and land use work within the city.

The group’s meetings so far, he said, have included a number of those from the artist community who are not officially in the task force.

“I think the fact that we’ve had meetings that have been very open and kind of free-wheeling, frankly, has been very helpful,” Laria said.

There was also a public comment period from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the War Memorial as well as the plan to create a website, where people can submit further comments and concerns, Laria said.

The task force has broken up into three small groups to look at key areas: understanding what artists need; looking at the state of affairs with the city codes (and ways to ease those without sacrificing safety); and finding avenues of financing available or that must be invented.

“It’s an important part of any modern city to have a vibrant arts community,” he said.

In the meantime, while the BROS are hopeful for the task force to succeed, they are not taking chances with their future. Erica Patoka, musical director for the group’s upcoming September show, “The Terrible Secret of Lunastus,” said it’s certainly not the first time spaces in Baltimore have not been up to code, and not even the first time for the BROS. In the past eight years of the group’s existence, they’ve had numerous different spaces for show rehearsals, band practice and performing. The goal now? A forever home.

The group has already raised more than $20,000 of a $75,000 Crowdrise goal to get them started. And they’re putting almost all the money made in fundraising performances into the campaign. In fact, there’s a Valentine’s Day fundraiser event on Feb. 11 at Maryland Art Space called Bro K Cupid (pun intended).

“A permanent space would mean we would have so much more time to put our energy into the creative process itself,” she said.

For a city that prides itself on a thriving arts community, now is the make or break time. And the artists are watching.

To donate to the BROS fundraising campaign, go to crowdrise.com/brosforeverhome.

hmonicken@midatlanticmedia.com

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