Arts districts' success in eye of beholder

May 20, 2010

The suggestion that Mary Carole McCauley makes in her article, "Do arts districts live up to their hype?" (May 14) that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to create and maintain arts districts is akin to suggesting that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to make art. Success in art districts is quantifiable, but the way it manifests, and the way people envision "success" can be very different.

The success of the Station North Arts district is one of the highlights of the arts district designations, but the designation was not responsible for the sudden genesis of an artist community but rather a way to empower a pre-existing set of conditions. And now, we see an arts district that looks like the ones we see on television and in the movies, and most importantly, one that developers (with the best or worst intentions, depending) recognize as an economic opportunity.

The development of Highlandtown has been a slow, organic process. Unlike Station North, Highlandtown is a residence for blue-collar families dating back to the start of the 20th century; the pre-existing conditions that led to Station North's recent renaissance are not there, and this allows art to take a role and shape different than the ones we traditionally recognize. In this community, the arts are a tool for building community, not economy. This shapes an artistic community that is inclusive, not exclusive.

"Artists are the shock troops of gentrification" everyone cries, and though the model of success established by Station North has been accomplished in ways that are mindful of the impact of gentrification, can it last? Though Baltimore is not a large city, and the unfortunate patterns of Soho, the Mission District in San Francisco, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn are most likely unable to be repeated here, the possibility still remains. Economic changes alone cannot build self-sustaining artistic communities. In time, they are ultimately exclusive.

Including the population at ground level offers a different path to development; not only the artists but the entire community benefits in ways that are not reflected in profits but in quality of life. The success of neighborhood festivals and events at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson is the most visible of these, but others such as Polish, Ukranian and Latino festivals in Patterson Park, the American Visionary Art Museum's Kinetic Sculpture Race and the large mixed use building at Crown Cork and Seal operate "below the radar" but are still a vital part of the cultural life of this neighborhood.

Ultimately, "hype" is not something to live up to. It is the small local successes that track an arts district's health. A healthy artistic community is only as healthy as the community itself, and the only barometer of this success is to find out how the people living there are doing. In the article, executive directors, academics, even academics from institutions outside of Baltimore are included. Why not extend the dialogue to the people who enjoy and benefit these from cultural communities directly, the ones who live there?

I moved to Baltimore in 1997, I have been a joyful participant and strong supporter of Baltimore's art community for over 10 years and have witnessed and researched the ups and downs of its growth and recent flourishing. In full disclosure, I have worked with Creative Alliance at the Patterson for more than half of these years, and it has given me a ringside seat to the positive changes taking place in Highlandtown.

I stay here for a reason: I love the city, the people, neighborhoods and institutions that make it a vibrant place to live, and hope that all of these great forces can continue to work together to carry on.

Kelley Bell, Baltimore

The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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