Baltimore: National Bohemians

Jul 12, 2010

Post art critic Blake Gopnik, film critic Ann Hornaday and music critic Chris Richards talk about their impressions of the Baltimore arts scene, give recommendations, share recollections and more.

Yesterday, the Style section's critics took a look at what makes the Baltimore arts scene so dynamic. Today, a few of us are here to chat about our encounters with that scene. If you're from Baltimore, let us and other readers know what we got right -- or missed! -- in describing your town. If you're from somewhere else, feel free to ask us for more dope on the arts in Baltimore.

Baltimore seems to maintain its identity decade-after-decade. Do you think they've had so many people grow up and stay in the city, unlike D.C. or NYC? Thanks.

There does seem to be a certain commitment to the city, that you don't find elsewhere. That said, several readers have pointed out that most of the visual artists who've made it at all big have, in fact, felt the need to leave town to carry on with their careers. Also, the one risk with Baltimore's cultural "stability" is that the art that gets made doesn't change as much as maybe it should. There's a risk of sticking with a style we might call "Timeless Bohemian"!

How often do you guys get up to Baltimore and when you do, what stuff do you like to do that may not be tied to your areas of reporting?

I usually get up to B'more whenever one of the museums -- the Walters, the Baltimore Museum of Art or the COntemporary Museum -- has a major show, and then I try to hit the smaller venues at the same time. And then, if there's any time left, I try to sample one of Baltimore's brewpub cask ales -- one of the city's greatest art forms!

Is it really fair to say the Baltimore scene is newly dynamic? Isn't this just a few examples of "neat" things happening in the area -- rather than a signal of some epic trend set to catapult B-more to some new level of culture?

I guess I'd say both are true -- that if you get enough examples of "neat things happening", you can rise to a new level of culture. On the other hand, in visual arts at least, it is fair to say that not much important art has come out of the scene -- so far. (Compare the scene in Vancouver, which has produced Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and other international stars...)

Hi Ann, Easy one: What's your favorite film that's taken place in Charm City? Or, if it's too tough, I'll give you three, and why? Thanks...

Hi there! This is a tough one, but I do have an abiding love of "Pecker." I think I'm sentimental about it because it came out just when I moved to the city, and captured so much of its eccentric, for lack of a better word, charm...And it also exemplified John Waters's humanism, which I found really touching. I live pretty close to Hampden, where a lot of it was set and filmed, so I have a chance to re-live the movie quite a bit! Always smiling when I do!

Nice to see the name check for Wye Oak and "Dance My Pain Away" in the club music article. You've probably covered the indie rock scene here, too, and I just missed it...but make sure you come back to review a lot of the folk and Americana that's happening in Baltimore's Caleb Stine, Appalachian shape singing, Noble Lake, etc. And, of course, ArtScape is coming!

Thanks! The Baltimore club scene has a had quite an impact on Charm City's indie-rockscape and Wye Oak's cover of Rod Lee seemed like the most concrete example of that relationship.

Everyone should listen to Rod Lee's original version right here:

And Wye Oak's rendition is here:

And thanks for tip about shape note singing. Interestingly enough, M.I.A. --  who I also mentioned in the piece as an outsider who's embraced Baltimore club music -- samples the famous shape-noters the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers on her new album. Does Baltimore deserve credit for that, too?

All I know about Baltimore I leard from John Waters's movies and of course, "The Wire." Please tell me where they got it right and where they got it wrong.

OK full disclosure: I haven't watched THE WIRE yet. I know I know!!! I'm waiting until I have a nice long stretch to burrow in with it and watch it non-stop...But that said, I have it on good authority that most people who live in Baltimore find it the best portrayal of the city in terms of breadth and depth. Now, that said, I also think that between John Waters's stylized, exaggerated portraits, Barry Levinson's more classical remembrances and new visions like Matthew Porterfield's, we're getting deeply personal views of the city that add up, collage-like, to a resonant representation of what it *feels* like to be there. We could use more, though -- I'd love to see filmmakers from the city's African American and new immigrant communities come out with their stories, for example.

Hey Chris, Aside from club, what other sounds, bands or people give off that Baltimore vibe/beat?

In addition to the club music played on 92Q, the station is also incredibly supportive of their local rappers. I mentioned Mullyman, Bossman and the Get Em Mamis in my story and each of them are worth checking out.

Meantime, the indie rock scene in Baltimore has been booming for a few years now. I would put Beach House at the top of that heap. They're a beguiling duo who've released one of the finest albums I've heard this year - "Teen Dream" for the venerable Sub Pop label.

Blake, did any artists talk to you about their rent?

Yes, they all spoke of how cheap their rents are, compared to what they would be in other cities. Rents seem to range widely, from a few hundred dollars to $600 or $700 -- depending on studio size, of course. It's just a miracle that big spaces are available at all, at anything like a reasonable cost. (That's part of the secret to Berlin's scene, too. The NYC painter Julie Mehretu needed to make some huge works, and went all the way to Berlin to find a suitable and affordable studio. She might have found one in B'more!)

Lots of artists do community-based work in Baltimore. Did you see any overlap with those projects while you were visiting? I think that and cheap rent have a lot to do with why the Baltimore scene is flourishing. (oh and the art is good!)

You're right -- and you've given me a chance to praise the Creative Alliance, a non-profit that's been working in the Highlandtown neighborhood for 15 years providing living and studio space for artists, as well as an exhibition and performance venue in the re-habbed Patterson movie theater. They're a great example of the kind of grass-roots creative work that nabed like Station North are doing (they co-produced the wonderful Fluid Movement I mentioned, for example.

 Here's a link to their site, please check them out! They're wonderful!

Station 92Q, influencing Baltimore's club and music scene with its beat

Baltimore's blend of grace and grit reflected in its cinematic mythology

Where do you guys suggest going to get the 'feel' of Baltimore? Fells Point? Federal Hill? The Inner Harbor's nice but seems a bit too touristy. Thanks!

Well, if you don't mind a bit of edge, Station North might be the place to go, just north of the train station. Club Charles has good, big, cheap drinks, and the pizza at Joes Squared is really quite good. And there are various artist-run galleries in the area, usually only open a day or two each weekend. (After dark, it's said to be a bit iffy -- but I didn't see anything that worried me, after catching a show at Baltimore Annex Theater on Oliver Street.)

Is the Mayor of Balitmore still under indictment? I can't even remember for way but it was something to do with shoes, right?

Former mayor Sheila Dixon stepped down in February, after being convicted of embezzlement and pleading guilty of perjury. We'll post a link to our story that ran earlier this year.

Dixon to resign as Baltimore mayor in ethics probe deal

In Baltimore, artists' community is the real work of art

I was born in Baltimore (grew up in the suburbs) and now live in the city, though I work in D.C. The reason why artists can get by in Baltimore is because the town, compared to any other east coast big city, is cheap to live in. I was fortunate enough to buy a 3- bedroom rowhouse in Hampden, one of the most bohemian of neighborhoods, in 2000 for $89 thousand. Now, after two refinancings, my mortgage, taxes and insurance comes to about $550 a month. Not everyone can have that small a nut to make, but compared to D.C. housing is much, much less expensive. You could live like this in N.Y. or Boston 40 years ago, but not today.

And this is one of the main reasons why Baltimore's rock scene (indie or otherwise) often outshines what's happening here in Washington. It's incredibly expensive for bands to find rehearsal space in D.C. The same goes for D.I.Y. music venues and arts spaces. Baltimore has oodles. Washington, notsomuch.

Well said!

Yup. Too true for art, as well.

Out of Baltimore suburban communities (I was surprised by how there are), which are the ones you like most and how come?

One of my favorites is Pikesville, which is a treasure trove of mid-century American homes that look like they're straight out of "The Brady Bunch." They're so perfectly preserved (at least on the outside), they just give me a nostalgic tingle when I drive past them! (Says an unapologetic Child of the Sixties and Seventies.)

It isn't a suburb, but I also love Roland Park, which was designed by the Olmstead company. Big, rambling houses with sleeping porches, deep yards, a canopy of old trees...It's a lovely example of built and natural environment harmonizing in an unforced, serene way.

I don't think of Baltimore as a college town-type place, but then again, John Hopkins University is there where Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner as well as fictional diagnostician Gregory House went to school. So the school seems pretty posh to me. Does the student body of John Hopkins University have much influence in any part of Baltimore?

Not sure about the students, but the art history profs at Hopkins are some of the best in the world, and they certainly have some effect on local museums -- and that must trickle down to local artists, too. (Or is that just wishful thinking?)

I can't seem to recall, Ann, if any sort of action/thriller movies have been shot there. Am I missing any?

Well of course there's THE BEDROOM WINDOW and TWELVE MONKEYS (if you count that). Also the most recent DIE HARD movie (love the truck scene on what looks like 395!), and that Will Smith movie from a few years ago, ENEMY OF THE STATE...Parts of SYRIANA were also filmed there, but not so much the thriller aspects. Now it's my turn: Am I missing any, chatters?

What kind of ethos exists with Baltimore that has kept that town going, do you think? Several similar cities like Cleveland, Detroit and such have seen their fortunes begin to diminish, but that feeling doesn't seem to exist in B-more.

Well, as one artist said to me, it's important not to get all rose-tinted-spectacles about Baltimore. The artists may enjoy the grit and "texture," but both are a product of some deep and abiding problems and dysfunctions. So which do we want, a squeeky-clean, safe, functioning city that's a bit dull, or ... Baltimore. (I was pretty shocked at just how bad some downtown blocks can be. The brand-new Current gallery is about the only building on its block that isn't boarded up.)

Has crime become less of an issue in Baltimore? I'd love to go there and hang out, but I've heard it can be a bit dodgy.

I don't have any real data on this, but I've been spending the wee hours in Baltimore nightclubs since I was a teenager. Again, nothing scientific about this, but I feel like it's gotten slightly better over the course of fifteen years.

Remember to lock your car doors, walk with friends -- act like you would in an any American city and you should be fine.

An artist who lives in a Station North loft talked to me about how much safer it has gotten over the last decade -- but she also walks her neighb with the biggest, blackest Great Dane I have ever seen. She also points out that the increase in safety (ie, gentrification) has gone hand in hand with the gradual pushing out of the neighborhood's original inhabitants.

Edgar Allen Poe seems to me to be the essence of a Baltimorean figure: gritty, self-made, hard-living iconoclast. What're your thoughts?

So true -- and of course H.L. Mencken fits this description, as well. It occurred to me over the weekend that I could also have included Gram Parsons as a writer whose fiction was inspired by the city, with his wonderful murder-of-love ballad "Streets of Baltimore." (Maybe not self-made exactly, but...)

And while we're mentioning gritty Charm City songs/lyrics/poets can I add Nina Simone's "Baltimore" to the pile? Amazing tune. 

Listen here:

I live near D.C. but love visiting Baltimore -- it really does have its own distinct culture, food, people, nightlife, music, etc. And I feel like the drive to Baltimore is no worse than trying to get from one traffic-heavy part of the D.C. area to another... yet for some reason I know plenty of D.C. people who are reluctant to make the trip, simply because they think it's too far away. Why do you think people have that mental block? Do you think it's mostly "The Wire" reputation, and visitors aren't aware of the fun, eclectic areas the city has to offer?

For nightlife, I think Washingtonians are cautious about getting behind the wheel. Music often comes with a side of alcohol and a cab ride down I-95 costs about $95.

That said, I see your point and feel like I'm constantly urging friends to drive (safely!) to Baltimore to see music. If anyone wants to organize a Friday night carpool, I'm game.

Beyond Hopkins, there is University of Baltimore, University of Md., Baltimore, MICA (Maryland Institute College for the Arts), Loyola, Coppin, Morgan State, Goucher... I've got to be missing some.

Allow me to turn the tables and ask you a question: Is there a vibrant concert culture at these schools? I grew up between Baltimore and Washington and used to see shows at nearly all of the universities you mentioned. Is that still the case? It seems that universities only promote their concert events to their students nowadays.

Hey Chris, I remember going to see Trainwreck (Kyle Gass of Tenacious D fame's other band) at Fletcher's. Great time. Band was outstanding and that upstairs was packed. Guys stayed around to chat after and Kyle signed my T-D shirt. Just sharing.

Very cool. I remember seeing French pop band Tahiti-80 there about ten years ago. If only I had asked them to sign my t-shirt!

As far as cultural influence on the city, Johns Hopkins University has surprisingly little. For one thing, it attracts a very serious minded student body--heavy emphasis on science and math. The campus is also self-contained. The city has tried fostering a sort of college town atmosphere on St. Paul Street, a block over from Hopkins location, but you can't create Harvard Square overnight. The entire Hopkins entity--the University and the hospital--are however critically important to the city's economic well being and sense of itself. Hopkins Hospital, in particular, has taken over entire, previously decaying blocks in east Baltimore. And the preeminence of Hopkins has forced other medical institutions to develop specialties. I tell people that if you think you might have a serious and/or chronic medical condition, move to Baltimore.

This is a fascinating observation, I'm not sure I have much to add to it! Well said!

What would you say are the primary differences between the arts scenes in Baltimore and D.C.? And how does our area stack up nationally? (if you exclude the obvious trump cards of NYC and SanFran).

Since I live in B'more, most of my free time is spent at arts events there...But I am struck there by the proliferation of these small, indie spaces and venues for music, theater and even cinema. I'm sure DC has that too, but in Baltimore it's almost as if they're springing up block by block. ...

One obvious difference is the presence of big, internationally famous museums in Washington. The Walters and the BMA are very good, but they can't stack up to the National Gallery and Hirshhorn. On the other hand, Baltimore has the Contemporary Museum, which is really an ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) rather than a museum. Washington could sure use one of those. Combine the two cities, and you get something quite special -- but the few miles that separate them, geographically, manage to keep them apart culturally and functionally, too.

Any recommendations for local restaurants? I feel like Inner Harbor is all chains, and I don't know the other neighborhoods well enough to just explore (especially since I've heard there are some less safe neighborhoods). Where can you go for food that's unique to the city?

Ah food, my favorite subject! Here are my faves: The Helmand, in Mount Vernon, for Afghan food that is *fabulous* (and great for carnivores and veggie-vores alike)...I love Petit Louis, a French Bistro in Roland Park that is always good...And everyone loves The Dizz, in Remington, formerly Dizzy Izzies but re-named in honor of Duff Goldman of "Ace of Cakes" fame. ... I'm going to let the guys chime in!

I've been going to B.O.P. (Brick Oven Pizza) in Fell's Point since I was snot-nosed punk. For me, it's the most nostalgia-inducing slice of pizza in America -- next to those horrid rectangular slices served in Anne Arundel County Public Schools circa 1988-97.

Just a reminder to everyone: Artscape is this weekend! There's apparently going to be a stage just outside my apartment this year, too.

Yes indeedy. Who are you most excited to see?

I'm on a student budget, and I love exploring free events in D.C., which seems to have more of those choices than most cities because of the Smithsonian. Do you know a good resource for free cultural activities in Baltimore?

Not sure about a "resource" (other than this chat!), but last I checked, the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art were both free. The Contemporary Museum only asks for a "suggested donation" of $5, and all the artist-run centers (Creative Alliance, School 33, Gallery FOur, Whole Gallery, Area 405 and others) are free. (Though they never turn down a donation.)

So you've got options!

Chris... which one is more "pain-in-the-butt free" of an experience? The J-Lube Live or Merriweather Post up in Baltimore?

I think for Washingtonians, trekking out to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD is far less painful that heading to The Lube in Bristow, VA. Both can be traffic jam hell, but MPP less so.

Another fun restaurant is Rocket to Venus -- a kind of postmodern diner with an interesting menu, up in Hampden.

Okay, for the vaunted crab cake, where's the best place to feast upon this treat in Baltimore?

Faidley's, full stop.

Ouch. As a first-timer, I ADORED the atmosphere at Faidley's. But my crabcake was ... MICROWAVED! (Admittedly, I was one of the very last customers served that day.)

I was told BOPA is incredibly awesome and tend to have their fingers in anything from small collectives to venue planning, which creates a very powerful channel for artists to cross between different facets of the community in order to make it on their own in the city. Are any of you aware of some of the programs they provide using artists, for wider audiences? Also, I've heard MICA is incredibly influential on the scene.

Yes and yes...As someone who lives there and avails herself of all the different levels of art experiences, my impression is that the scene really is the result of lots of players -- the aforementioned Creative Alliance, the Maryland Film Festival and Maryland Producers Club, individual philantropists who nurture things like the Maryland Art Place (there shall be a links)...As well as countless entrepreneurs like Buzz Cusack, who runs the wonderful Charles art house movie theater.

What aspects of Baltimore's arts scenes do you believe deserve to be copied in other cities, and are there aspects you believe would you be accepted as well in certain cities?

Again, I'd mention the Creative Alliance as an amazing model of a nonprofit acting as a bridge between traditional arts programming and community outreach; they've had a huge impact on their neighborhood as well as being cutting-edge arts presenters. ... To me they're a great example of an institution that while focusing on and being sensitive to the needs of its immediate community, creates work that is much larger in its appeal.

Thanks for the questions everyone! See you in Baltimore, come on up!

Thanks for joining us today, double-thanks for reading our work and triple thanks for the great questions, everyone. Hope to see you up in Baltimore.

(And if you want to start carpooling to Sonar/Choices/Paradox on Friday or Saturday nights, I'm at!)

In This Chat
Blake Gopnik
Blake Gopnik is art critic for The Washington Post.
Ann Hornaday
Ann Hornaday is film critic for The Washington Post.
Chris Richards
Chris Richards is music critic for The Washington Post.
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