Artists say Crabtown has things Big Apple can't offer BALTIMORE'S Big Draw

March 25, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

An article about Baltimore's art community in Saturday's Today section incorrectly identified artist Donald Baechler.

The Sun regrets the errors.

When Grace Hartigan started teaching painting at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in the 1960s she'd often give her students three words of advice: New York City. That is, go to New York, where careers are made, where art is shown, purchased and also spoken.

In the next two decades Manhattan rents soared, SoHo became chic, sprouting boutiques where artists once squeaked by in low-rent lofts. It's been years since Ms. Hartigan urged students to move to New York.


"I don't say that anymore," says Ms. Hartigan, an artist of international renown who paints in a grand studio above a drugstore in Fells Point. "What I say is 'Stay here, like me.' Stay here where studios are cheap, and there's not only Maryland Art Place, there's Studio 33 and there's opportunities to exhibit and to possibly sell your work."

L Sure, Baltimore: good baseball city, seafood city, art city.

Art city? Bawlamer?

By at least one measure, yes, says Ms. Hartigan, who moved to Baltimore in 1960 from New York when she married a Johns Hopkins University scientist. "What makes an art city is artists," she says.

And Baltimore has plenty of them. Nobody's counted, but people who work in the local art world say Baltimore has more than its share of painters, sculptors, printmakers and art photographers for a city of 700,000. They move to Baltimore from all over the country to study at the Maryland Institute, counted by U.S. News & World Report this year among the country's top four visual art colleges.

The institute -- which has graduated such luminaries as Jeff Koons, David Baechler and Baltimore native Morris Louis -- graduates 250 students every year with bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts. Diplomas in hand, they step out of the white stone building on Mount Royal Avenue into a city that represents a mixed blessing.

For artists scratching out an existence, Baltimore is a bargain. It's well-stocked with relatively inexpensive apartments, depending on how much risk of crime you're willing to tolerate. Its old warehouses, defunct mills and vacant foundries make good, cheap studios. Its community of artists can give each other moral if not financial support. Baltimore has city-funded Studio 33 Art Center and Maryland Art Place, both nonprofit galleries specializing in showing local artists.

But the city is short on commercial galleries and well-heeled collectors willing to take a risk on unproven, local talent. It's close enough to New York to lose collectors' dollars to galleries there, but far enough from New York to make it difficult for Baltimore artists to make Manhattan connections, much less get New York dealers to come see their work.

"It's like you're on Mars," says Baltimore painter Lois Borgenicht, whose mother owns a gallery in Arts Mecca: 57th Street in Manhattan. Ms. Borgenicht used to work at the gallery and had a studio loft in Manhattan before moving to Baltimore six years ago when her husband was hired by Hopkins' School of Medicine as a researcher. She left New York, she says, "kicking and screaming," but has since gotten more sanguine about it.

"It's a great place for me to work," she says. Baltimore gallery owners, she says, have done a good job of promoting art in town, but "the one thing I miss is crowded galleries and museums. . . . In New York, people would run into a gallery the day after a review appears, clutching the newspaper."

'Less diversion'

Lots of artists, not much of an art crowd. That's life in Crabtown, Art City. Fine, says Trace Miller, a 39-year-old painter who moved to Baltimore from Pennsylvania in 1980.

"There's less diversion here. In a way, it makes it easier to get down to work. . . . If I were in New York and working I would always feel like I was being pulled" away from the studio.

He works full-time as an artist in a little industrial complex in Woodberry where the studio floor shakes when they start up the big cotton looms in the building. The new place costs $300 a month and has plenty of light. He's been there a year, ever since he moved from Federal Street and Guilford Avenue after he was held up at gunpoint while heading into the studio early one morning.

He'd like to move to New York someday, but at this stage of his career, Baltimore suits him. It's "a very, very good city to develop" in as an artist. "It's affordable . . . New York is no longer where you have to be. It's just too hard to make it there, to manage the day-to-day."

Sculptor John Ferguson works in one end of an unheated old foundry in Clipper Industrial Park where the wind whistles through shattered windows. He pays his rent by doing maintenance for the landlord. Once railroad engines were built there. Now, Mr. Ferguson, 55, goes there to shape hunks of steel or brass into graceful, soaring sculptures that may stand 10, 12 feet high.

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