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Arts and Entertainment

Best Scene

Baltimore's Current Outpouring of Creative Energy Isn't Limited to Music

Alex Fine

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/17/2008

Baltimore's underground music community became the hot thing this year, as many miles of mainstream magazine ink and trend-spotting blog posts can attest. And while we've poked a few holes in that sometimes perfunctory coverage, we sincerely believe it's all greatly deserved. Why shouldn't the rest of the world know just how great Baltimore's musical minds are?

We also feel that this enthusiasm is only catching part of what's going on in town, and doesn't examine the soil in which it grew. Not to take anything away from the au courant bands, but they represent a small bit of what's going on here--and they would be the first to tell you that. What makes Baltimore the best scene of 2008 is the roiling sea of activity that is spread throughout local arts--and the many people and places that laid the groundwork for this activity over the years.

Not only does Baltimore have a wealth of underground and semi-underground performance spots around town in the Bank, the restored Tarantula Hill, Floristree, the Nerve Center, the fresh-faced Hexagon, and the CopyCat Annex, but there are more varied kinds of performance going on. Los Solo is local artists/curators Bonnie Jones and Jackie Milad's freshly minted series for solo female performers. Writers Michael Kimball and Jen Michalski's 510 Reading Series launched in January to bring mainstream and experimental fiction writers to town, and Chris Toll's i.e. reading series has found a home at the Carriage House on Hargrove Street. And more visual arts galleries have opened recently including Paperwork, erstwhile City Paper contributor Jason Hughes' Library Project, Gallery 2219, the ongoing curatorial hive of Current Gallery, and the restart of the vital Gallery Four. And local theater may be the most frenetic local arts community right now, as three new theater companies have opened in past year alone--Riverside Stage, Single Carrot, and the Strand.

This frenzy of grass-roots activity is one of the reasons Single Carrot moved here in 2006-'07. Its members met at the University of Colorado in the early '00s, and as they started to graduate, they began a nationwide search for a city to launch their young company. "We started contacting theaters [in different cities] and just sort of gauging their reaction," Single Carrot's Brendan Ragan says. "We got positive reactions from everyone, but some of them were colder than others. Basically, they said you can come--if you're good. And that's not really the attitude we were hoping to have, because we do all kinds of stuff, and who knows if we're going to fit in with what you think is `good.'

"We talked to a couple of people in Baltimore who were extremely warm, very accepting, and they opened their arms," he continues. "The art scene is definitely on an upswing, we felt, and we thought it was a good time to jump on that and contribute."

"I feel like Baltimore has a really strong theater community," says Jayme Kilburn, the artistic director of the Strand Theatre, which was partly started to showcase female playwrights, characters, and stories. "And I think it's because there's so many small community theaters that there's really no big competition within each other. People are very supportive, and I think they know how hard it is to do this."

That community has been fostered over the years by the likes of Vagabond Players and Spotlighters Theatre, but also by newer companies such as the continually impressive Run of the Mill Theater, which almost single-handedly proved that ambitious contemporary theater can be mounted on a community budget.

And that standing on the shoulders of progenitors runs throughout local arts. Cara Ober (a former CP contributor) and Dana Reifler started their Paperwork gallery to showcase artists and artworks that might be overlooked by more commercial galleries in a more informal setting. It's a DIY exhibition attitude that has always thrived in Baltimore, a city lousy with artists but not as many exhibition opportunities.

"I felt the Chela space that Jackie Milad and some other people used to run was a really good example of that," Ober says. "Or the Whole Gallery. It gave me my first opportunities to show, and that's really our goal as well. We're giving, hopefully, to a lot of people an opportunity that they wouldn't have had otherwise."

Bonnie Jones was involved with Milad in Chela, and their Los Solos series is but their latest joint venture in a decade of working together. And she feels that reciprocal attitude is practically hard-wired into Baltimore artists. "Not only is it easy to do work here, but if you have the interest, it's easy to get work here for other people," Jones says. "And that was a nice give and take--you know, I'm getting a lot out of the community, there's a lot going on, I'm never bored, I have a lot of opportunities, so I'll just turn it around and put it back in."

It's an attitude that fosters community building. In the mid-1990s, Baltimore's principal music venues didn't cater to all-ages fans, and it fell to DIY spaces such as the Laff 'n' Spit and the Small Intestine to serve a demographic that was hungry for music.

"To me the Laff 'n' Spit was a big deal," says Roman Kuebler of the Oranges Band, who first entered local music in 1996 with Roads to Space Travel. "We played there quite a bit, and I went there a lot, and there were good shows. And the Small Intestine was great because it just pulled all of those kids from East Baltimore and Hamilton, and they were just there all the time. It was a pure kind of approach."

Today, of course, all-ages shows at upstart, multiformat local venues are a given. But while none of this is to say that without the past there would be no now, it bears remembering that there's more to local arts history than what exists on the internet. It also bears mentioning that the above only skims the surface of what's going on now and the various arts communities' local roots--and that any scene report inevitably leaves out more than it can fit in.

"It just so happens that there's a lot of artists moving out and about right now, bringing Baltimore out to the rest of the world," Jones says. "So it's a good time for new Baltimore, but it's an even better time for old Baltimore, because a lot of people have been moving out there all this time and have sort of helped bring about this attention."

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