Gathering Gold Against the Gloom of Unrest in Baltimore

January 6, 2016  • Aidan Flax-Clark

In the gloom the gold gathers the light against it,” wrote Ezra Pound. Baltimore had plenty of gloom in 2015 — the inexcusable death of Freddie Gray and the uprising that followed, the 344 homicides, and the 24 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Recently Bernie Sanders, walking through the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray died, likened it to a third world country.

But there is some gold gathering. Pebbles perhaps, but they glimmer. Signs of hope are evident, for instance, in the area known as Station North, where you can see buildings undergoing transformation, like the once-crumbling abandoned factory that had been a set for The Wire and which now serves as a state-of-the-art public design school providing immersive art instruction for 500 students. Right around the corner construction is beginning on Open Works, a 34,000-square-foot incubator space that will house, support, and drive Baltimore’s creative economy. A few blocks away the soon-to-reopen historic Parkway Theater on North Avenue will not only be a beautiful place to see movies but a home for film students from both Johns Hopkins and Maryland Institute College of Art. Surrounding all of it is an array of live-work spaces, galleries, public art, and street festivals that together will breathe new and, hopefully, sustainable life into their community.

Venture a little farther into the city, and you might discover OrchKids, a five-school program run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. OrchKids provides year-round after-school music training in classical, jazz, and even bucket drumming to more than a thousand students ranging from pre-K to 9th grade. Head south to the Cherry Hill Homes, Baltimore’s largest public-housing project that has grown increasingly isolated from the city through geography, limited public transportation, and the closings of stores and schools. There you will find the Youth Resiliency Institute offering routine intergenerational arts classes and performance opportunities in order to transform the personal, family, and community experience. YRI calls these efforts Rites of Passage; they celebrate culture, restore identity, and aim to institutionalize civic engagement.

The arts are helping to reshape Baltimore in moving and impressive ways.

The arts are helping to reshape Baltimore in moving and impressive ways. Last November, in conjunction with the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), the Aspen Institute Arts Program convened its most recent strategy group to investigate how these individual successes can meld into a unified collaborative mission advancing diversity, equity, and social cohesion throughout the city. Over two days of site visits and meetings on the MICA campus, the participants — who included local and national artists, activists, and foundation representatives, as well as colleagues from other Aspen Institute programs — examined this question first in terms of pursuing this mission in any city, and then focused on refining those ideas specifically for Baltimore.

The litany of problems faced by Baltimore that meeting participants described included issues familiar to many American cities as well as ones unique to Baltimore: a lack of steady arts programs in schools; failures in communication between the artists and arts organizations already at work in the city; difficulty accessing grant money; the arts’ lack of representation within the formal organs of infrastructure and government; a poor transportation system; a dearth of national funding; structural racism creating barriers to opportunity for a population that is more than 60% black; the idea that, as one participant said, “In Baltimore, individuals don’t get to determine their future. Their race and zip code determine their future.”

Baltimore is a tale of two cities. Nearly every measure of health, wealth, and opportunity, for instance, is skewed with profound injustice against the black community. Unemployment rates for young black men are nearly quadruple that of white men; median family income of black households hovers around half that of whites; and only 10 percent of black men have a college degree. Baltimore is also the city where children face the worst odds of getting out of poverty, and the income gap is such that the top 5 percent of earners make around $167,000 a year, while the bottom 20 percent average about $13,600. The life-expectancy divide between the poorest and the richest neighborhoods is 20 years; in 14 neighborhoods (including Freddie Gray’s), life expectancy is shorter than in North Korea — and in eight neighborhoods it is shorter than in Syria.

You can drown in those statistics, so the group instead focused on solutions, envisioning Baltimore’s better future and imagining how the arts could help bring it about. The process even of imagining those actions, let alone implementing them, is in its infancy. The work of this Strategy Group will be ongoing; creating lasting and meaningful solutions is going to take time. It’s also important to note that no one is under the impression that the arts can be a lone hero here. They aren’t a silver bullet, as Maria Rosario Jackson, an urban planning and cultural policy specialist pointed out. “They have to be alongside other sophisticated, thoughtful ways of impacting these wicked issues that we have before us.” But, she said, “revitalization strategies that don’t include arts and culture are woefully inadequate…a strategy absent that element is seriously flawed.”

By weaving together the individual strands and unifying for the task at hand, the opportunity for success is within reach.

Many potential areas of focus were discussed. These included attracting more national funding, increasing communication both among arts organizations and between arts organizations and funders, and positioning the arts within the municipal framework so that they have leverage to drive structural change. What came up over and over was the need to get arts in every grade in every school throughout the city. Any artistic medium requires engagement with critical, creative, and mechanical skills. For young people, engaging those skills creates what Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop called a “pathway to possibility.” She sees this in OrchKids, whose participants are awakened through mastering difficult instruments and understanding complicated pieces of music to the very idea that they can achieve great things in a whole range of fields — even though they won’t all become professional musicians. Their eyes are opened to the world of opportunity that awaits them. Artistic engagement at that depth and breadth, no matter the medium, can achieve the same result.

Local musician and educator Wendell Patrick described the “unspoken designation” he sees around certain art forms and noted that “some things aren’t necessarily for certain people within a certain neighborhood.” He elaborated with his own experience as a black classical pianist. “When I was a child,” he said, “there were two pianists that I idolized. Once was Van Cliburn, and the other one was Andre Watts…Somewhere along the way, I learned essentially that Van Cliburn was a pianist, but Andre Watts was a black pianist. And I think seeing [OrchKids students perform], these students are just doing what they love and what they want to do. There isn’t any sort of expectation that it should be more difficult for them to do because of their color or that they shouldn’t do it at all because of their color.”

We need, said Patrick, “more spaces where this unspoken rule or designation of who can and who can’t do what is at least muted to the point where a child has the resources to look at that and be able to realize how not only ridiculous that is, but that it doesn’t actually even exist.”

Maria Rosario Jackson spoke about the power of cultural kitchens to create these spaces. “Arts and culture is a really important asset in a community. It’s evidence of resilience. It’s not always easily seen in low-income communities because it’s present in ways that we aren’t trained to look for…Cultural expression and the art of a community is a crucial dimension of equity. That cultural self-determination is something we don’t pay attention to when we think about equity often it that way.”

“If you look around the world and throughout the ages at strategies to disempower communities,” she said, “the first thing that’s stripped away is the ability to make meaning, to make art, to express yourself — to have some control over what your narrative is or how you make sense of the world. If it’s so important that it has to be stripped away in order to weaken and disempower, then why don’t we think of it as central to how we rebuild and how we try to strengthen?”

Can Baltimore’s arts community play a leadership role in building a future in which every citizen — regardless of race, gender, or zip code — can lead a life of fulfillment? Can Baltimore gather its gold against the gloom of Freddie Gray’s death and transform itself into a city on the vanguard of positive social change? We think that it can, which is why the Arts Program, the Center for Urban Innovation, and other Institute programs are committed to the community over the long-term. The Arts Program is committed to capitalizing upon the excitement and ideas from this initial Strategy Group convening by continuing its partnership with MICA. There will be further Strategy Sessions, and we will continue to bring together local and national leaders who can enhance the discussion, refine the goals and strategies, and further inflame the call to action. In April, the Urban Innovation Lab is partnering with Baltimore Corps, a member of the inaugural cohort of Urban Innovators, to examine the evolving legacy of Freddie Gray. We’ll attempt to contextualize Baltimore – a year from the events of last April – through candid acknowledgement of our challenges and elevation of Baltimore’s promise. By weaving together the individual strands and unifying for the task at hand, the opportunity for success is within reach.