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Terminal Velocity

The life, death--and rebirth--of the Current Gallery

Michael Northrup
Current Gallery organizers (from left) Monique Crabb, Michael Benevento, and Hans Petrich on the roof of the soon-to-be-former Current Gallery.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/5/2009

Abandon Ship

Current Gallery, Through Aug. 10. Closing reception Aug. 8, 7-10 p.m.

"The original concept was to have a gallery/studio space for a six-month period," says Hans Petrich, one of the original 14 artists who started the nonprofit Current Gallery and Artists Cooperative in November 2004. "And the time kept on being extended. We were told, 'Oh, you have a couple of more months. You have six more months.' But pretty much after that first six months, we knew we could be kicked out anytime. So we had to figure out--what do we do now?"

Perhaps you're not the morbid sort, but sometimes it's entertaining to consider when you might die. Would knowing how much time you have left change the way you live your life? Does a finite number of days make each one more precious? Do you do the things you always wanted to do but demurred out of a lack of confidence, fear of failure, or apprehension about appearances? Does knowing the end is nigh embolden you to carpe fucking diem?

It did for the Current Gallery. It officially opened in February 2005 as a short-term multi-use space where the co-founding 14 artists planned to use the second and third stories of 30 S. Calvert St. as studio space and turn the first floor into a gallery, where each artist would mount a short-running solo show. The artists--including Timonium native and MICA grad Petrich, now 29--were granted use of the building by responding to a call for proposals by the Baltimore Development Corp., which sought ideas for using unoccupied downtown properties owned by the city. (Petrich cites BDC's Colin Talbert, the Downtown Partnership's J. Kirby Fowler Jr. and Nan Rohrer, and former Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts Visual Arts Coordinator Gary Kachadourian as helpful allies in Current's entire endeavor.) The artists started a nonprofit limited liability corporation to operate it--dues paid by participating artists helped defray costs for converting the first-floor's former retail space into an exhibition-ready room and operation costs such as electricity--assuming it would be a six-month project.

"For me, I didn't know what I was going to do after I graduated," Petrich admits. The tall, lean young man sits in the gallery on a Thursday early with his co-organizers, Michael Benevento and Monique Crabb, and initially apologizes if he's mumbling: He recently had jaw surgery, requiring having his mouth wired shut, and feels he's still acclimating to speaking intelligibly again. He needn't worry: He sounds clear, passionate, and intelligent.

"You know, I had a painting degree, and I was like, what's next?" Petrich continues. "And I kind of fell into this group and I was like, Alright. I'll see what's going on here. And we came up with a proposal and we got it and it kind of snowballed into this thing. And the more I went through this I thought, What do I want to do with my life? And I want to do more curating and the administration side of art, and that prompted me to go to grad school this fall at NYU in arts administration. So this led directly into that."

This on-the-job education came with the typical mundane problems--coordinating schedules, keeping track of paperwork, etc.--but also a unique predicament because of the Current's built-in death sentence. Given that the gallery knew, at some point, it was no longer going to exist, the organizers decided to run the gallery in a different manner. While most galleries operate by developing clients/collectors and working with artists to sell their work, Current wanted to try working completely outside the usual market system. It became a gallery less interested in presenting an artist's body of work and more about showcasing creative work that might otherwise not find exhibition opportunity under usual gallery protocols.

"One of the things that made me interested in the space is that I thought it was more terminal at that point," says Benevento, who joined the gallery after its initial six months. The sprightly 26-year-old Houston transplant moved to Baltimore to attend MICA and hit the ground running at Current following graduation. "Which made it really interesting how it was this space but it was dependent on the buffer time before it got demolished, and that was the first show that I did, Under Construction, kind of about urban-renewal projects downtown. And I guess, basically, I was curating and putting together shows that I would have liked to be in--kind of putting together a context for people to participate, but also doing shows that there's not another spot they could exist in. We have a structure where there's no money involved and no donors and no people that we have to cater to, so there' a lot more liberty in that sense. We're not designing the shows--not that we're avoiding it--but we're not designing the shows to market the artwork. So it creates another liberty there where it doesn't have to be saleable objects."

This unencumbered-by-market thinking powered Current's fascinating string of shows from 2006 on, thematically organized group outings that offered many of the best visual ideas to take place in the city. From its 2006 Artscape show Dilapidated Reanimated, which celebrated ideas for other creative uses for empty urban spaces organized by the city, to the 2006 Splotches-curated Tell-A-Vision, from the 2007 High Zero sound installation to the blithe Hacking Utopia(s) and countless music concerts and various performances, Current became a lively spot for local artists and emerging curators. Not everything was a visual-qua-intellectual home run by any stretch of the imagination, but ambitious failures and outlandish if misguided ideas actually realized are vital, rejuvenating tonics to the stale, comfortable, and polite white-box gallery show.

And Current deserves an ovation for being willing to try anything out. "It's not like any of us have degrees in this," says 27-year-old Crabb, also a Houston transplant and MICA grad, who joined the gallery about a year after it opened. "Somebody would be, 'Oh, I have an idea for a show with a friend of mine' or this and that. And then that kind of evolved and we curated some shows on our own or did them together, or we invited people [to curate shows] and then we started getting e-mails from people [asking], 'Hey can we use your space?' And we'd be, like, That sounds awesome. We'd love to. I think it's just been awesome to give people the opportunity to curate a show without having any experience doing it before."

Hanging in the background, though, was the awareness that closure was always mere weeks away. "At some point, we started to not think about it because it was too much," Crabb says. "We were just, We'll plan shows and see what happens. And if they tell us to stop, we'll stop."

That time has finally come. The Current Gallery and Artists Cooperative has to vacate the building by Aug. 10 so that the building came be fenced up for abatement in September and demolished in October. So it's going out with a bang. Its final show, Abandon Ship, overstuffs the gallery with the typical impish wit and insouciant aplomb that runs through Current's better shows, and a final bash is slated for this weekend. Additionally, the exhibition continues online through the building's demo. The organizers hope to have a video camera document the destruction. "You know, in case somebody can't come down to watch it," Petrich deadpans. "They can watch it on their computer and cry."

And like a terminal patient who wakes up every day prepared that it might be the last, Current wants to live--which is why it has been seeking a new home in the Station North Arts District and elsewhere for about a year, and why the organizers have an exhibition and DVD project, Baltimore vs. the World, still in the works that will, obviously, take place at a different location. Just where it might take place--or where the gallery may relocate to--remains up in the air.

But that's OK. Current is facing death with the same ingenuity which has sustained its life. "Things are always changing and we have to change with it, so we have to be really creative with it," Petrich says. "OK, one of [us] three is leaving--how do we do what we do? We don't know yet, but that's what we've always done. We've always figured it out as we go along. We've been doing this for so long we're alright with it. We're not going to be so, 'It's not going to work.' We'll just keep moving on."

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