On the Corner
Newest Local Art Gallery Occupies One Highly Visible Corner Of An Up-And-Coming Area
Many people involved with the local arts community know that the underground is alive and well, with more artist-run exhibitions and performances spaces currently active than in recent memory. Most of these spaces have had to operate underground for various practical and legal reasons, which has mostly worked out in the artists' favor, allowing this social network to prosper uninhibited.
Local contemporary art flagships like the Baltimore Museum of Art, American Visionary Art Museum, and Maryland Institute College of Art are greatly responsible for attracting the caliber of artists and curators that visit or move to Baltimore. The smaller nonprofits such as Maryland Art Place, the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, and the Contemporary Museum are most active in rotating exhibitions, public programming, and community outreach. But it is the extensiveness of artist-run spaces such as the H&H Building (where this writer formerly helped run Gallery Four), Wham City, Current Gallery, Area 405, the G-Spot, and so on that really support local creativity. Many of these spaces operate under a more artists-for-artists'-sake format by choosing to stay under the radar, while others struggle to get noticed due to their fringy locations and shoestring budgets. Obviously, affordable rent has always caused artists' spaces to gravitate toward the fringe neighborhoods, subsequently preventing them from having the luxury of easily accessible studios or centrally located storefront galleries.
Not so the recently opened Metro Gallery. Housed on the corner of Lanvale and Charles streets one block north of Penn Station, it is hard not to envy the premium real estate this gallery now occupies. Even though large parts of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District are still considered fringy by some standards, there is a very active few blocks radiating out from the 1700 block of North Charles Street. Here you can find all the essentials--lively bars, after-hours clubs, theaters, restaurants, and now finally an unthreatening exhibition/performance space.
Metro Gallery founder Sarah Williams really lucked out from being at the right place at the right time. Last year, the 26-year-old Dundalk native was the restaurant manager at boutique pizza parlor Joe Squared when she started attending the recently begun business meetings of the Charles North Community Association. "So I started going to those meetings and I just found out more and more about what was going on, and the stigma on the neighborhood," Williams says. "It was really hard to bring a business into here. People would still say, `It's so close to North Avenue'--they looked at it negatively."
At these meetings she met Michael Shecter, who owns the 1700 N. Charles St. building, as well as many others along this corridor, such as the buildings that house the Charles and Everyman theaters. Shecter "wanted to put some sort of gallery or café," in the space, Williams recalls. "And I said, `Well, I've done art stuff for a long time and I can run a restaurant.' So we started talking about it and we came up with this place.
"It started off being just a gallery," she continues. "And I was trying to think of ways--well, 1) I, personally, I try to keep commissions down to a basic minimum, and there's other ways to bring money and income into a place without having to take it from the artist. And that's always been my goal, to try to find ways around that. So then I was like, hey, I'd like to do a café, and that turned into getting a beer and wine license."
Shecter and Williams started rehab and business planning last fall, and hope to acquire a beer and wine license this September. The building itself is a fairly large commercial storefront with cathedral ceilings and is divided in half by a row of columns down the middle. One side is set up for exhibitions, the other is more of a lounge/performance space. By this September, Williams plans to have a café in the rear of the exhibition/performance space and will maintain regular daytime business hours in addition to nighttime events and art openings. Judging by their inaugural event, be sure to come early since approximately 800 people arrived over the course of the night, running out of food and alcohol within the first two hours.
Now that an exhibition/performance venue has been situated directly in one of Baltimore's most vibrant blocks, the challenge for them now is to maintain an interesting enough schedule in order to realize their potential of becoming one of the city's most vital exhibition/performance spaces. The inaugural exhibition, Pink Lung Trial, was a reasonably interesting show featuring Seth Goodman and Greg McLemore, two local painters whose symbolism incorporates a dreamy kind of psychosis. The amount of work, scale, and imagery was a bit to take in at once--the gallery presently doesn't have any partition walls. Upon entering the space you see the entire exhibition, leaving little room in such a large space for curiosity and discovery. The graphic nature of the work--whose mix of technical and crude painting styles, muddy and pure palettes, as well as disembodied limbs, murder and clinical scenes, and so on--were just a little too much to be surrounded by with no room between the work to breathe. With a little more time editing through the just-OK work and highlighting the strongest pieces, the gallery can become a more prominent venue and prove to the area's collector base that it is worth saving the gas money by shopping locally.
Nonetheless, Metro Gallery is off to a good start. It will be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next year, with a roster of exhibitions, performances, and screenings already scheduled through the fall.
Williams literally moved into the local art community. As a UMBC psychology undergraduate in 1999, living on campus became too expensive, so she moved to Mount Vernon. "I had never really been to Mount Vernon before and then I was automatically immersed in the art scene here," Williams says. "I ended up living with artists all the time and I'd see their work sitting in the apartment. And I was just, like, `Guys, why don't you go out and do something with this?' It bothered me because it was some really great artwork.
"So I just started poking around and figuring out how you go about getting work in galleries and how you curate a show," she continues. "I really had no background in that at all and I just started going to pretty much any art show I could and met more and more artists--especially in this Station North area. I just made it a point to go to everything."
She curated her first show, Rule of Thirds, in 2004 at the Whole Gallery. Since, she's curated and helped put together other shows, including hanging work in Joe Squared and Sofie's Crepes. Metro is her first major venture as a curator and gallery director, and there is already a great deal of promise for Metro Gallery--especially since it is conveniently located to many of Baltimore's cultural/entertainment hot spots. Hopefully the cross-pollination along the 1700 block of North Charles will prove effective and allow the underground community to have the visibility that it desperately needs and deserves.
The downside, of course, to staying under the radar is that it is easy to get overlooked by the area's philanthropists who actually want to support Baltimore's emerging talent, but however you choose to look at it, for better or for worse, the city's recent growth spurt has had a positive impact on the area's arts community--better exhibitions at museums, more grant and exhibition opportunities to compete for, as well as a greater number of venues for the public to see it all for themselves.
But one of the major difficulties of surviving as an artist or emerging gallery is a limited market where the very few already existing commercial art galleries already have a lock on the area's collector base. Unfortunately, this fact causes some of Baltimore's best and brightest to move on in their careers, which too often means doing so in other cities.
Eventually, Williams hopes to counter that by progressing into representation--doing what she can to help artists make a living through their labor. But it's going to take time. "Right now, since I'm at the beginning stages, I'm learning how much I can take on and how much I can't," she says. "I don't want to make promises to artists I can't keep--I try to really do what I say I'm going to do. So I'm kind of learning the ins and outs of what I'm capable of doing at this place, how I can help artists. But, probably by the end of the year, I'll start delving into artist representation. But right now, I want them to get to know who I am, too, before they decide to be represented by me and my place. I'm still getting to know my place at the same time. I'm really getting to know my floors because, man, do I get to mop them a lot."
Additional reporting by Bret McCabe.
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201