Lotta Heart, Lotta Art

Striving to maintain its community roots, School 33 Arts Center ponders its relationship with the city.

October 18, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

In two gleaming galleries inside an old school turned art center in South Baltimore, 170 paintings, prints and sculptures reflect the diversity of the city's arts community.

The works, ranging from large, intense portraits to tiny, peaceful still lifes, have been donated by local artists for the annual Lotta Art benefit at School 33 this Saturday. In its 10th year, Lotta Art has become a major source of income for the center, yet it probably won't make as much money as an auction could.

An auction where heated bidding could leave some participants out in the cold just isn't School 33's style. Instead, everyone with a $125 ticket to Lotta Art is assured a work of art in a lottery-style drawing. As much as School 33 wants to make money, it also wants to give everyone a chance to enjoy its riches.

As its South Baltimore neighborhood becomes increasingly gentrified, nonprofit School 33 has held fast to its democratic approach to contemporary art that includes all. It's an all-purpose community arts center, where a world-famous artist such as Robert Gober can guest-curate a show while a group of kids exhibits the latest masterpieces created in a slightly shabby basement classroom nearby. Every April, School 33 opens the studios of more than 100 Baltimore artists to visitors as part of an annual tour.

School 33 has become an integral part of Baltimore's arts community since it was created 22 years ago by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture.

Operating from an old Victorian-style building on Light Street, the center both "reflects the community and serves the community," says Peter Dubeau, who has worked at School 33 for 13 years and served as director for four years.

While Dubeau's vision remains consistent, he and his board, the Friends of School 33, are poised to make a tough call about the art center's future. A drop in public funding in recent years has prompted the Friends to look "at the opportunity to go private," Dubeau says.

It is a decision that may have to be made before crucial questions regarding School 33's future can be answered. Clair Segal, a longtime supporter who urged privatization in the past, recently resigned as head of the mayor's arts committee, and a successor has yet to be named. It's unclear just how a new leader might envision the arts committee's role -- and what that may mean for School 33.

The art center's board must also weigh whether the post-Sept. 11 economy and funding priorities will allow the center to become the self-governing, financially secure organization envisioned in the transition to private management.

In some ways, going private would make official what is, for the most part, already a reality for School 33. City support has fallen drastically. "We took a $25,000 hit this fiscal year," Dubeau says. "It was quite a blow."

This year's contribution from the mayor's arts committee, itself largely dependent on non-governmental funding sources, was $13,000, not even enough to cover the annual electric bill. Grants, donations, fund-raisers and income from art classes make up the remaining 94 percent of the center's current annual budget of $225,000.

But the city does support School 33 in other key ways that make the privatization decision extremely difficult: Custodial services and building maintenance are provided, as are fine-arts insurance and benefits for two employees.

Should it lose those services, School 33 would have to draw from its current, modest reserve of about $161,000 to pay for repairs and maintenance of a building it rents from the city for $1 a year. A leaky roof could potentially wipe the center out, Dubeau says.

The 1890 building already is in need of major improvements. It has no central air conditioning or heating, the classrooms are in a sorry state, and an ugly chain-link fence surrounds a paved space that could one day, with enough resources, become a bucolic sculpture garden. With or without city support, the building is a beloved burden that only those truly devoted to their mission would agree to maintain on a shoestring.

Alison Lohr, president of the School 33 board, and Dubeau first confronted the dilemma four years ago, when they and the city began negotiating the terms of going private. But they postponed the decision when they realized that even with a $50,000 operating grant offered by the city and free rent, they couldn't afford to take the reins.

Instead, Lohr and Dubeau decided to get serious about raising money. Lohr began to fashion a "working board" committed to development efforts. "What we've been doing with the Friends is really building the organization from the ground up, so when the time comes when it needs to be private, we have enough money," Lohr says.

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