Risk pays off in new, unlikely spot for local art


April 11, 2001|By Dawna Cobb

AFTER YEARS of watching their artist friends struggle to find galleries that would show and sell their work, Linda Richardson, a resident of Waverly, and her partner, Mark Cottman, a painter who lives on lower Guilford Avenue, confronted the problem. They opened the Sassafras art gallery in a vacant Barclay Street row house store front on the corner of 32nd Street.

Starting a small business is always risky, but doing so in an area that has been described publicly as the "DMZ" between Charles Village and Waverly might seem foolhardy.

Having been the proprietor of CafM-i Montage on Preston Street in the mid-1990s, Ms. Richardson appreciates the challenges of running a small business. As a painter, Mr. Cottman has experienced firsthand the difficulties in finding a gallery to show his work.

Since the gallery opened in October, Ms. Richardson has been in an almost constant state of anxiety about the risk that she and Mr. Cottman have taken.

Yet success came in a big way on a Saturday night in January, when about 200 people attended a reception for local painter Richard Sober.

A variety of people, many from the Charles Village and Waverly neighborhoods, met the artist, admired his paintings and his poems, which were hung on the wall next to several paintings, sipped wine and talked about the art.

Another wonderful thing happened that night: People bought a number of Mr. Sober's paintings, which are priced in the $300 range. In the weeks since, several more paintings have been sold. Just as Ms. Richardson and Mr. Cottman suspected, there exists in Baltimore a market for reasonably priced art by local artists.

That Saturday night was not a fluke. Only a couple of weeks later, a standing-room-only crowd packed the gallery for a reading by four local poets. Yet another 200 attended the opening reception for the February exhibit, a showing of the work of 26 artists primarily from Baltimore.

After only a few months, the risk-taking appears to be paying off. A new community gathering spot for artists and those who appreciate art has been born in an unlikely place, on the edge of a neighborhood that some might consider borderline.

The owners' act of faith is how blocks are reborn; Sassafras has given life to a once-tired street corner.

For example, on a recent cold Saturday morning, a Charles Village resident came by to show her watercolors in hopes they would be selected for a coming exhibit. Others going to the farmers' market stopped by and inquired about the gallery and its current exhibit. Friends of Ms. Richardson stopped by for coffee.

Ms. Richardson and Mr. Cottman have a definite vision for Sassafras. Shows have been booked through October. Each month will bring a different exhibit.

During the late spring and summer, Ms. Richardson will offer artists the opportunity to display their works on the sidewalk surrounding the gallery. The image of an outdoor display of arts and crafts combined with the colorful scene of the Saturday morning farmers' market evokes what Monet might have painted. It may not be what most people conjure when thinking about Baltimore, but Linda Richardson and Mark Cottman hope to change that.

With all this excitement and possibility, it's not surprising that Charles Village community newsletters and e-mail lists are heralding the gallery's arrival.

Ms. Richardson feels overwhelmed by the support from Charles Village residents, several of whom helped her bail water from the cellar of the gallery after the pipes burst on Christmas Eve.

She rightly acknowledges that it takes more than a good idea to be successful. A willingness to take a risk is a necessary ingredient, and lucky for the people of Charles Village and all of Baltimore that Ms. Richardson and Mr. Cottman took a risk that is now the Sassafras art gallery where once an empty building stood.

Today's writer

Dawna Cobb has been president of the Abell Improvement Association and is a board member of the Charles Village Civic Association. By day, she is a lawyer in the state attorney general's office representing Maryland's public universities.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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