EARLY LAST month a colorful but cryptic insignia appeared on the concrete walkway near the front steps of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The image, stenciled on the walkway in red, resembled some sort of drill or injection device whose handle was emblazoned with the word "local."
A few days later a press release from a mysterious group calling itself the Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective began arriving at local media and arts institutions around town. "Public Notice and Warning," it declared: "BMA Receives 'Gene Therapy.' "
The accompanying text explained that "the Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective (CCC) of Baltimore accepts responsibility for successfully infecting the Baltimore Museum of Art with special viral codes of 'localness' using a stenciled virus as the chosen vehicle of transmission.
"An independent team of scientists, cryptanalysts and folk mathematicians say that this newly discovered form of gene therapy via stenciled art will revive the moribund museum from its decades-long coma," the note continues.
One might dismiss this carefully orchestrated protest as mere vandalism or as the misguided efforts of local pranksters with a grudge against the museum. Actually, it is probably a bit more and less than that.
On one level, of course, there is no doubt what the shadowy Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective is up to. It wants the BMA to accord more recognition to local artists.
Ever since the museum decided several years ago to discontinue its biennial shows devoted to locally produced work, its relationship with Baltimore's resident artists has been marked by contention. Many local artists considered the new curatorial policy a slap in the face to home-grown talent.
Moreover, the biennial shows themselves represented a significant scaling back from the days when the BMA held juried shows of local art every year. At one time the museum also regularly scheduled exhibits of individual artists and subsidized a rental gallery local artists could lease to show their own work.
In a way it's not surprising that the BMA, which takes its cues from developments in the international art world centered in the major cultural capitals of North America and Europe, should seem to downplay the tradition of artists working in Baltimore.
Unlike New York and London, Paris and Milan, Baltimore does not have a thriving commercial gallery system to showcase the work of local artists.
The museum cannot simply step in to shoulder that responsibility, however. As it is, nearly a third of the museum's shows of contemporary art involve regional artists. And it has many other responsibilities as well, including that of assembling and preserving representative collections of the art of all eras.
Still, the downside of all this is that local artists feel they get short shrift from the city's premier art institution. That is a pity, because Baltimore is in many respects an otherwise extremely hospitable place for artists to live and work.
The city has, for example, relatively low rents compared with places like New York or Washington, which makes it easier for artists to afford large studio spaces. The proposed transformation of the Howard Street corridor into a new arts district could make Baltimore, with its proximity to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, a major magnet for artists up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Moreover, the arts community here nurtures a collaborative spirit that encourages the kind of creative give-and-take and exchange of ideas that produce a vibrant cultural life.
Add to that the presence of a first-rate art school, the Maryland Institute, College of Art, plus the world-class technology of the imaging center at UMBC, and this city ought to be emerging as a major visual-arts center in its own right.
Scene has changed
To some extent that is already happening, albeit at what seems a glacial pace. Thirty years ago, for example, there was virtually no commercial gallery scene for contemporary art. Today there are at least five important galleries that exhibit serious work by U.S. and foreign artists.
There is also a thriving alternative art scene of smaller galleries and museums, such as Maryland Art Place, School 33 Art Center, Artscape, the Fells Point Creative Alliance, the Contemporary and the American Visionary Art Museum. Ironically, many of these venues arose as a direct response to local artists' frustration over the BMA's apparent indifference.
True, Baltimore still suffers from a reputation among outsiders as a provincial backwater whose most significant cultural artifacts are bouffant hairdos and steamed crabs. But in fact this city is home to an extremely sophisticated visual-arts community, whose talents and abilities can hold their own with those of artists anywhere today.
Somehow Baltimore needs to get that message out, and the BMA needs to be part of the effort. Providing for some kind of periodic show of regional art seems a relatively modest step, given the potentially critical role the arts have to play as a magnet for new human and investment capital.
The arts can yet become an important engine of economic development for Baltimore. That is why it seems to me the BMA ought to reconsider its relationship to local artists and their work -- and why a little gentle prodding from irreverent activists like the anonymous Cultural Cryptanalysts Collective probably will be seen, in the long run, to have done more good than harm.