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Making a Trade

More and More African-American Artists are Moving to Baltimore to Make, Show, and Sell Their Work. But Will the City's Art Market Make Them Feel at Home?

By Ericka Blount Danois | Posted 8/6/2003

Roy Crosse delicately handles his "Dream Penis"--one in a series of eight meticulous and identical works of art. Each lino-cut image, depicting the colorful phallus, shows signs of the artist's precision, as well as his skewed humor.

Without a hint of sarcasm Crosse (who often goes by the nom de art "roycrosse") describes the story that "Dream Penis" tells, through its deliberate images and accompanying text, as a "whimsical story about a penis coming into the world not sure of what his purpose is." He is a classic example of an artist who is both sensual and pleasantly eccentric.

Crosse, who works out of his WestNorth studio/gallery at 106 W. North Ave., is one of several established black artists who have recently moved--or moved back--to Baltimore to live, work, and sell their art. It is happening in such numbers in recent years that scholars and artists alike identify it as a trend: African-American artists coming to Charm City to create spaces that are their homes, studios, and galleries.

"This is what a lot of artists are doing--it's a way artists are taking control of their lives," says Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "Black artists have never been recognized as part of the landscape of American culture. Even now as museums are trying to diversify, an artist can only hope for a show at a museum once or twice a year. [So this] is a new wave of the future."

Those who have migrated here each found Baltimore attractive for their own reasons--the city's affordable housing, its abundance of big empty buildings to refurbish, its majority-black population that could make for a ready market, its easy access to big cities like Washington and New York. But in order to succeed in what is still a meager scene for black artists, each will have to combine these promising attributes with his or her own business sense.

Not the least of these art entrepreneurs is Danny Simmons, a painter of abstract-expressionist oils who owns the Rush Arts Gallery in Manhattan and heads the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation with his brother, Russell Simmons of Def Jam records fame. He says he's looking to move here within the next year to create a living space, gallery, and studio much like the one he has in New York. But for him, Baltimore is both a refuge and a repository of still-underused potential.

"I can't get anything done nowadays in New York," Simmons says from his Brooklyn, N.Y., studio. "I'm on so many boards and my phone rings off the hook, I haven't been able to do my own painting."

The oldest of the Simmons clan that includes rap impresario Russell and rapper-turned-reverend Joey, Danny has roots in the area--his father was a Baltimorean--but he became interested in moving here during a recent speaking engagement at MICA. He asked the audience what was happening culturally in Baltimore, he recalls, and the crowd struggled for answers. So Simmons made plans to launch an art gallery that was focused less on selling than on developing a community of culture.

"I want to deal with emerging artists and kids coming out of schools and give them an opportunity to show their work," Simmons says. "Baltimore is a depressed city--I think a new forum for the arts will be well-received. And I'd like to try something new in a new city, maybe make a difference someplace else."

He is not alone in his thinking. William Rhodes III, a painter and sculptor, says he decided to move back to his native Baltimore six years ago, when his studio in Massachusetts became so costly that maintaining it began to interfere with his work. He soon found that opening his own space would not only be more affordable but also would become a kind of service for the struggling African-American art scene.

"When I was living in Massachusetts I was spending so much time trying to pay rent, I had two day jobs trying to make ends meet," Rhodes says. "Within the last 10 years there has been an upsurge of black artists and artists in general moving to the [Baltimore] area. There are low housing costs, buying materials here is affordable, and it's close to the markets where you can make money."

With all that in mind, he converted an old abandoned building at 2524 St. Paul St. into a 3,000-square-foot property large enough for his studio in the basement, along with a gallery--named the St. Paul Art and Design Studio--and living space above. His gallery provides space to local artists and takes a small commission from whatever work sells. And in the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, he invites all types of artists into his space.

"I am not strictly a visual gallery. I have musicians, I have had fashion shows, Indian spiritual ceremonies, hair shows, mixed media," says Rhodes, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts. "What I like about being here is that it is grass-roots oriented. I am not affiliated with organizations or charities, so I can do what I want and have fun."

He supports himself by selling his own art--mainly carvings and furniture--because his gallery, he says, is not a moneymaker. Rather, he sees it as a type of community service.

"I grew up in Baltimore City and I know what it is like being an artist and not getting any support, but it's not that I'm being a nice guy," Rhodes says. "My livelihood is not based on selling art. If I did this as a business, I would be out on the street."

Still, Rhodes points out that Baltimore has a way to go in recognizing the full potential of African-American art, both as a body of work and as an opportunity for business. "There is an incredible artistic underground, particularly for people of color here. They have these incredible artistic spaces," he says. "The problem is there is no market here. You are not honored here. I've had art exhibits at the American Craft Museum. . . . And I come here and people say about my art, 'That's kind of weird. Can I do a layaway plan?'"

Painter Jeffrey Kent agrees that the market for art here is small, but it didn't deter him from undertaking a huge effort to carve out his own art space downtown. Last month, Kent began work on forming an African-American art cooperative at 118 N. Howard Street in a dank, dark subbasement with some 13,000 square feet. The Baltimore native describes the space, which has studio room for five artists including himself, as an ongoing project--artists are building walls and bulkheads and doing demolition work, making it into what Kent hopes will be a space where they can create as well as show their art.

"It's easier to sell your work in a place where you can show it," he says. "And I think that for [African-American artists], we have to have a place to show."

After a brief stint painting in Chicago, Kent returned home in 1998 to be closer to his family, eventually moving into the Abell Building at Baltimore and Eutaw streets. He lived there with a dozen other artists until this January, when a water line burst in the frigid winter. With a lot of encouragement from Roy Crosse, Kent deferred plans to move to Los Angeles and decided to stay in Baltimore. But Kent seems keenly aware of the challenges ahead of him, as he talks about his cooperative project with guarded optimism.

"Baltimore is a good place to create. It's a harder place to sell," he says. "But it's a hub between big markets like New York and D.C." Kent also shares Rhodes' frustration with what he sees as a still tepid environment for the work of black artists. "Baltimore is very segregated," he says. "Black artists doing contemporary art--we are not noticed. . . . There is a definite renaissance going on here, but it's underground because the city is not supporting it."

For his own part, Roy Crosse sees the limitations of working as a black artist in Baltimore, but he remains fixed on the possibilities.

"My sense of Baltimore is that it's a city that's rediscovering itself. And that's exciting," he observes. "It's an opportunity to take part in what's happening. There's nothing to do in D.C. but talk shit to politicians."

Crosse opened his WestNorth gallery last October on the first floor of an overwhelming 4,800-square-foot Victorian house on North Avenue, after living in the New York area for 12 years. Like Danny Simmons, he found Baltimore to be a relief from the pressures of big-city hype.

"Altogether, I found the New York thing just too expensive," he says. "As an artist your lifestyle is very unconventional, and I think Baltimore is one of those places that is attractive as a place to create. It is accessible, it is laid back, it is affordable."

So far, Crosse has found a comfortable place for his artistic creations here in Baltimore, and he sees the growing community of African-American artists itself to be a work in progress.

"I just do what I do, and either I succeed or I fail," he says. "I still like the urban grit and whatever excitement comes with that. Baltimore is alive. It's imperfect. There's a sense of change in the air, and that makes it interesting. Something is going on because artists want to come here. It is refreshing to go someplace where people are doing their own shit, even if they can't figure out what it is."

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