Unfair assessment of arts district

May 21, 2010

In a recent series of articles and blogs The Baltimore Sun mischaracterizes arts districts in general and the Highlandtown Arts District in particular. Why would the proposed arts district on the West Side inspire such a smear campaign? The Sun leads readers to believe that the only venues in the Highlandtown district are the Creative Alliance at the Patterson and the Southeast Anchor Library. The later is dismissed because it "doesn't make policy decisions for itself." The library, the only one of it's kind in Baltimore, is an important community partner, producing a wealth or programs throughout the year. The articles also fail to mention the multitude of smaller organizations like my gallery, Schiavone Fine Art, and Skyloft Gallery and the stream of public art projects and programming that makes up the district.

The article suggests that the arts district designation was forced from on high, stating that the Station North Arts District "came from the ground up, and not the top down." Efforts in Highlandtown are led by a committee made of volunteer artists, business owners and representatives from neighborhood nonprofits. Our committee does the same heavy lifting as the non-profit put in place by Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) President Fred Lazerus and the other heavy hitters in Station North. We chose not to form a non-profit to avoid overhead and to leverage existing community partners. You can't get any more grass roots than that.

Most arts districts in Maryland bear no resemblance to Station North, which is unique because MICA and the University of Baltimore flood the area with audiences and activities. The limited tax incentives have had little impact in both districts. The only organization currently taking advantage of them in Station North is The Charles Theatre, which benefits from the sales tax exception on admissions. The same incentive may be attractive to France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in the proposed West Side district. Only recently are there real estate development projects in both districts seeking to use tax breaks, including two major arts related development projects in Highlandtown. A 15,000 square foot industrial space and a 13,000 square foot commercial space have completed the initial acquisition phase and are in pre-development with expected delivery dates in 2011.

Until a joint meeting last year between Station North and the Highland Town Arts District, the state of Maryland did not have processes in place to apply for most of the tax credits. Highlandtown's SouthEast Community Development Corporation led preparations for the meeting with the state, including research into the tax credits and working with state officials to define needed processes. The current tax incentives benefit artists and small businesses little, but we are working with our representatives to improve them. Still, the designation is important to Highlandtown, where culture has had significant impact.

Our district has plenty of warehouse spaces, and we have a wealth of residents. Numerous department stores closed in the 1970's left behind a large stock of warehouses scattered within the neighborhood and along the future route of the Red Line. Our district is large, including close to 10,000 families and the Avenue, the original one that stretches from the Patterson to Greektown. Dozens of artists in Crown Cork & Seal and the many artisans sprinkled in shops and warehouses throughout the neighborhood make Highlandtown a rich environment to grow a vital arts district.

Daniel Schiavone, Baltimore

The writer is chairman of the Highlandtown Arts District Steering Committee.

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