"We should start by breaking simple rules," Lerman says. "Then we can break one that's a little more difficult. We'll just keep going until we break a whole series, until we get to the really hard ones, like race and class."
Kwei-Armah has begun putting that philosophy into practice at Center Stage. He has built a platform in the lobby where students from the Baltimore School for the Arts perform on Friday nights. In 2012, he'll convert one of Center Stage's refreshment centers into a 50-seat theater for new and cutting-edge work.
"A lot of companies say they want their theaters to be full at 8 p.m," he says. "I want there to be just as much activity going on inside our lobbies."
Baltimore is a place where an offbeat, eccentric vibe is practically written into the city charter. And that's an attitude with potentially big benefits for artists.
"I don't think normative behavior is well understood here," Vikan says. "There's very little power elite, and what there was has kind of evaporated in the 27 years that I've lived here. So if you're in the arts, you can do any damn thing you want. I can tell you that's not characteristic for fine-arts museums throughout this country."
It may not even be true in the nation's capital, according to Lerman. She operated her own company, The Dance Exchange, for 35 years in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park. This past summer, she stepped away from her troupe and moved to Baltimore.
"When I was in Washington, I felt like I was fighting the wrong battles," Lerman says. "Artists there have to pay attention to a certain slickness. To this day, when we use older performers or disabled performers, it's looked down upon by the dance community because it's not pure art.
"In Baltimore, that's not even on the table. The discussion is all about how we can make our best art, serve our communities and make our cities better."
For instance, the Baltimore Symphony will co-sponsor a three-day Women of the World Festival from March 2-4 that will contain some arts performances — and a lot of programs addressing women's issues.
"We've already had think-ins in which 400 to 500 women from the community talked about whatever was on their minds," Alsop says. "They're concerned about poverty, health issues, politics — the spectrum."
WOW will include panels and workshops, a marketplace for female-owned businesses and speed mentoring, in which participants can sign up for 15 minutes with four advisers.
"When you talk about 'the arts', people's minds go someplace quite narrow," Alsop says. "But in Baltimore, arts forms that traditionally have been segmented and specialized are being used as vehicles into the larger society. In this city, we're all holding hands and humming 'Kumbayah.'"