A decade ago, Margaret Footner had an idea: To transform her tiny Fells Point cafe into a space suffused with creative energy where local artists, business people and residents could mingle and strengthen the bonds of community.
Though that's a tall order for a local restaurant known mainly for simple food and good company - for years the clientele of Margaret's Cafe included the cast of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets - Footner was undaunted.
Over the years, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, the organization founded by Footner and two colleagues, has become one of Baltimore's most innovative and inclusive arts venues. Its eclectic roster includes satire performed by the Charm City Kitty Club, dance classes taught by the Baltimore American Indian Center, art projects for children, support for emerging filmmakers, classic movie screenings, concerts and theatrical productions. Now housed in a renovated former movie palace in Highlandtown, its $3.7-million gallery and performance center, which opened in 2003, has brought new life to a once-struggling neighborhood. Tonight, the alliance will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a fund-raising dinner and ball.
"Margaret strongly believes that the arts should speak to a really wide swath of people in an immediate, compelling and transformative way," says program director Megan Hamilton, a writer and concert promoter who in 1995 helped Footner and artist Dan Schiavone found what would become the Creative Alliance.
"She was kind of a visionary businesswoman in the sense that she wasn't content with her cafe being just a wonderful place to eat," Hamilton added. "She felt it should relate to the community on an even deeper level."
Since the group moved into its new home at 3134 Eastern Ave., the Highlandtown community has experienced a remarkable revival. "Highlandtown was in pretty rough shape back in 1991," recalls former City Councilman and state Sen. Perry Sfikas, who, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, helped bring state and federal funds to the area. "When that Patterson marquee lit up again, it just gave people hope."
Businesses and homeowners are no longer fleeing the area. A wave of new arrivals - political refugees from Europe and Africa, Hispanic immigrants, African-Americans and artists looking for affordable studio space - are transforming the area into a lively, diverse community.
"A lot of people have invested time, energy and money into the area, with the result that what you've now got is a recovering neighborhood," said Ed Rutkowski, executive director of the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization that has pumped $40 million into neighborhood housing.
"The Creative Alliance has been in the forefront of these efforts," Rutkowski adds. "When you add them all up, what you have is a neighborhood that's come back from the dead."
How a tiny restaurant/gallery transformed itself into an important city art venue and neighborhood economic engine is a tale of equal parts perseverance, hard work and faith.
"We had to build a professional organization that could create and operate a cultural facility from scratch," says Footner, the alliance's executive director. "The key to our success, I think, has been in creating the kind of organization that a lot of people from all backgrounds could participate in."
Footner started Margaret's Cafe in 1992 in a building on Thames Street. She decorated the walls with fine prints by early modernists like Calder and Miro that her father had collected. And she knew she wanted the restaurant to be where artists mingled.
A chance encounter led Footner to ask Hamilton for help setting up exhibition space over the cafe. Hamilton recruited Schiavone as co-curator and in 1993 the venture opened as the Halcyon Gallery.
The three founders pooled their talents. "Dan was interested in helping young artists just out of art school, who often find there's no support system for them once they graduate, and Megan was promoting performances," Footner recalls. "I wanted the gallery to make art more accessible, more a part of the life of the community."
Soon the trio had to reassess: "The cafe couldn't really support the gallery, and we had ideas that went well beyond the traditional gallery format," Footner recalls. "Our ideas for a community-based art center didn't fit any business plan."
In 1995, the venture became the Fells Point Creative Alliance, a nonprofit supported by nearly 100 local artists and collectors. Its first fund-raiser was sponsored by the cast of Homicide and raised $800.
"It really was a grass roots organization," says Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "An organization like that is a testament to the importance of art and artists in our daily lives."
By 2000, the group, now named the Creative Alliance, was planning to renovate the old Patterson theater. Meanwhile, it mounted exhibitions and shows in a former Pep Boys store on Conklin Street.