Finding ways to enhance the arts

Groups, artists band together for a cause

October 29, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Last year, when Baltimore's arts organizations gathered for a Cultural Town Meeting with the mayor, it represented a first step toward joining forces to combat common concerns. Tonight, as the groups gather for the second-annual meeting, they know it's time to get down to business.

"We're going to be taking a look at the issues that are out there and that people are living with every day on the street," said Randi Vega, cultural affairs director for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

About 300 artists and organizers attended last year's first meeting with Mayor Martin O'Malley. It was billed as an opportunity for members of Baltimore's arts community to meet and to brainstorm.

This year, Vega said, the group can buckle down and get to work. The town meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the third floor of the Baltimore Convention Center.

"At the meeting last year, we recognized that there was a whole other level of activism in the arts community," said Gregory Tucker, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's vice president for public relations.

"We're better united than divided. When we get to the table, we can think creatively and imaginatively and work toward a common purpose: How we can use our art to make our community a success."

A featured speaker at the town meeting will be Randy Cohen, vice president of research for Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group, who will discuss the nationwide decrease in arts funding.

"It's a pretty unique time in the country in that all the major sources of funding for the arts are down," Cohen said.

"In the past, we'd see government giving go down, but private support would remain strong. But now, arts organizations across the country are selling fewer tickets. They are getting less money from the government, and private donations are down. Nationally, it's a very challenging situation."

While these funding decreases are understandable in tough economic times, some experts say that cutting back on arts spending may be short-sighted.

Richard Florida, an author and economist, will discuss his theory that "the creative class" - which includes not just artists, but scientists, computer programmers and others - is becoming increasingly common and important to cities.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, Florida goes so far as to argue that cities would be better served investing fewer dollars in sports stadiums and more in building an environment attractive to intellectuals - someplace with funky cafes, cutting-edge new music groups and antiques-filled historic districts.

"You need to be a place that attracts and retains talent, that has the lifestyle options, the excitement, the energy, the stimulation, that talented, creative people need," Florida said in a June 6, 2002, interview with Salon, the online magazine.

"Creative class people are fickle, finicky. We can move where we want to move. Therefore, understanding the factors associated with why these creative types of people root in a certain place is critical."

Vega hopes the discussion that follows these presentations will focus on creating such an environment in Baltimore.

For instance, she wonders, how can the city duplicate the transformation of the once-struggling 1700 block of North Charles Street into a vibrant urban hotspot that is home to, among other things, a professional theater, an art film house and a tapas restaurant?

"Artists are urban pioneers," Vega says. "They aren't afraid to move into neighborhoods that are struggling, to invest sweat equity. We need to capitalize on what we have accomplished in these neighborhoods, and grow it into other parts of the community."

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