Charm City as Arts City

Mayor Rawlings-Blake envisions Baltimore's future as thriving cultural center for music, theater, galleries and nightlife

December 23, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake keeps an item posted on her refrigerator door that has nothing to do with her day and night job as mayor of Baltimore. It's a 1983 report card from her flute teacher, Bonnie Lake, a now-retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra member who gave the then-13-year-old student a B-plus.

"It reminds me I have a fallback position," Rawlings-Blake said with a laugh. "What it really reminds me is that there are other things in life."

Like the arts. In her short time in office, the mayor has demonstrated a pronounced commitment to the city's cultural community.

In addition to the usual appearances at gala concerts and other more-social-than-arts events, Rawlings-Blake recently convened a conference with officials from arts organizations and the hospitality industry to spur dialogue and address concerns.

She has made a point of promoting the BSO's OrchKids educational initiative in a West Baltimore public school and grants to help artists move into vacant downtown storefronts. She embraces the concept of arts districts in the city and has pushed for more effective ways to develop them.

"Baltimore can and will be known as an arts city," Rawlings-Blake said during an interview in a City Hall conference room decorated with Baltimore Museum of Art posters.

The mayor has a long connection to the cultural element of her hometown.

"My parents were very interested in making sure that my brother, my sister and I were exposed to the arts," said the daughter of pediatrician Nina Rawlings and the late state Del. Howard Pete Rawlings. "We all took piano lessons. I also had ballet, even though I can barely touch my toes. We had theater class, even mime class. We were all encouraged to have artistic interests."

Although Rawlings-Blake, 40, eventually left the piano and flute behind, the experiences of sampling the city's cultural life stayed with her. During a ceremony in September renaming the Lyric Opera House the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, the mayor recalled accompanying her parents to events in that historic venue when she was a child.

These days, her schedule is somewhat tighter.

"I don't get to go out very often," Rawlings-Blake said, "but I carry on the tradition with my daughter. We go to different musical performances and museums. I took her to the Walter Wick exhibit at the Walters, and she loved it. It is important to spark that creativity for her."

The mayor's daughter, Sophia, also has had a lesson in seeing Baltimore from a fresh perspective.

"I had her slumber party in one of the hotels," Rawlings-Blake said. "She and her friends were enthralled with the view. They loved being tourists in their own city. Usually, it's only visitors who stay in the hotels. Many of us get into our daily ruts, leaving only the tourists to explore the city. I want people, especially Baltimoreans, to see everything the city has to offer."

Before becoming mayor last February, after the resignation of Sheila Dixon, Rawlings-Blake made a significant impact on the local arts and entertainment business as president of the Baltimore City Council.

"One of the first things I did was try to find a way to expand culture and nightlife opportunities in the city," she said. "Antiquated zoning laws were standing in the way."

In 2009, Rawlings-Blake led an initiative to modernize those ordinances so that more restaurants and bars could offer live music.

"I was pleased that one of the first business owners who came forward in support of the changes was a restaurant owner who wanted to have live jazz," the mayor says. "I love jazz music. I recently heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, which was an incredibly awesome experience."

Rawlings-Blake is impressed, too, with what she hears in Baltimore.

"We have a great underground music scene," she says. "More people should know how rich and diverse it is. I want to make sure people know the breakthrough things we have."

That includes under-the-radar art galleries that have sprung up in the city.

"The mayor has expressed an interest in taking an underground art tour with me," said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Clearly, she's arts-interested and involved. That's not surprising. Her father was incredibly important in securing the arts stabilizing bill that ensured arts funding in the state."

Although some residents invariably question any public funding of culture, Rawlings-Blake is armed with statistics that demonstrate the value of the nonprofit arts to Baltimore. "They generate $270 million annually in the local economy and account for 6,400 full-time-equivalent jobs," she said.

Since the recession, local and state governments across the country have taken a hard look at every budget item, including spending on the arts.

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