Art by day, ambience by night

The old Chart House is now a gallery when the sun shines and a hot nightclub in the evening hours. The hybrid is unexpected -- and unexpectedly successful.

Culture Watch

August 29, 1999|By Holly Selby, | Holly Selby,,SUN STAFF WRITER

You don't often think of a nightclub as a likely spot for contemplating fine art, but this isn't your ordinary night spot. This is a nightclub that's also an art gallery. Or maybe it's an art gallery that's also a nightclub.

Call it what you want: a little ambiguity doesn't rattle Jack Rasmussen, director of the nonprofit Maryland Art Place and overseer of the artistic portion of this innovative -- and temporary -- venue. "I've always said that the best work is done at the edges of things," Rasmussen says. "And here we are."

Operating as the Art House by day and the Lava Lounge dance club by night, the hybrid establishment is located in the building that used to house the Chart House restaurant, sandwiched between the Hard Rock Cafe and the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor.

The new venue -- an unlikely collaboration between a development company, an art organization and a nightclub -- represents a solution for a slew of disparate needs and an innovative approach to corporate support for the arts. It also has become a peculiar intersection for tourists, the artsy set and night clubbers -- many of whom have been heard to wonder just what this place is all about.

"I'm beginning to hear people talk about it," says 26-year-old Hollie Kenney Hollis, a patron of the nightclub. "The name is out there as a nightclub, but it's a little hard to describe the part about the restaurant and the art gallery."

It can be confusing. Tables of hungry seafood lovers are no longer found here. Instead, paintings of jazz ensembles and swing dancers by Maryland artist Mark Barry hang on the red brick walls across from a wooden bar. Occasionally the bar-like attributes of the space threaten to overwhelm the art. At night, bubbling, boiling lava is projected in multicolored lights onto the dance floor. "Is that art, too? Cool," says one dancer, as the red, yellow and green lights flicker over his feet.

But often the art holds its own. On the walls around the dance floor hangs a series of photographs by Alan Jackson. The black-and-white pictures depicting dancers at a festival seem a silent commentary on the social scene. One floor up, "Peace," an enormous installation created by David Hess to protest the Persian Gulf War, causes nearly every passer-by to stop and examine it.

A variety of uses

Visit the Art House while the sun is shining, and you may find folks from Wichita or Boston peering at a painting by Raoul Middleman. Or, you may meet locals who have come to check out Baltimore's newest exhibition space. Come back in about 12 hours, and dance lovers will be lining up outside, waiting to get into the Lava Lounge. And last Sunday, Maryland Art Place presented renowned performance artist Joyce Scott and musicians in "Ebony and Irony" a show that drew more than 100 art aficionados and had bartenders scrambling to serve white wine and borrowing olives for martinis from the Hard Rock Cafe next door.

The Art House/Lava Lounge combination was conceived in March when the Chart House restaurant closed. Cordish Co., which eventually plans to tear down the restaurant and replace it with a multi-use retail-office complex, realized it needed a short-term client.

Collaborating

Maryland Art Place, a nonprofit gallery located at 218 W. Saratoga St. that is dedicated to presenting the work of local artists, is always on the lookout for innovative ways to present contemporary art, to say nothing of new ways to make ends meet.

Dave Geller, who runs the Lava Lounge, was interested in trying out a new concept for a nightclub.

Enter Suzi Cordish, president of the board of trustees at Maryland Art Place -- and wife of David Cordish, head of Cordish Co. "As soon as it became evident that there would be a space available, we [at MAP] realized that it would be a terrific space for exhibiting Maryland artists," she says.

Not everyone is convinced that art galleries and nightclubs belong together. Critics of the Art House experiment have expressed concern that the club atmosphere -- with its rowdy crowds, alcohol and smoke -- is an unsuitable environment for art, says Rasmussen. To make sure the art isn't damaged, Maryland Art Place has hired security guards to roam the gallery-club at night. "We're aware that at night, few people come here looking for an art experience," says Rasmussen. "All we can hope for is that they look at the art and fall in love and spend the time necessary to appreciate it."

Naysayers aside, the Art House experiment seems a sweet deal for Maryland Art Place.

By the time Cordish Co. razes the old restaurant, the art gallery will have made about $50,000, says Rasmussen. Meanwhile, Maryland Art Place, which normally has about 4,000 square feet of exhibition space, gained another 5,000 square feet practically overnight.

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