I recently returned from a visit to Austin, Texas, whose slogan, “Keep Austin WEIRD,” is pure brilliance. Not only is it found on every product you’d ever want (or not), the concept attracts a diverse and interesting mix of people from all over the world. Our waiter was from Edinburgh (no slouch of a city), and the friends we were visiting had recently moved to Austin after forty years in Manhattan—in Chelsea, no less! Not only that, but shortly after my return, I discovered that Austin had once again been named the number one city for artists and designers. Baltimore didn’t even make the list of 25 cities!
I’m hoping that, like me, you are feeling a tad indignant about this. First of all, in terms of weird, please, Baltimore is far weirder than Austin. Not only did it produce John Waters, most of the Baltimoreans I know are downright eccentric—and that’s a good thing! More importantly, given our many artistic resources—MICA, Artscape, the Visionary, the Contemporary, the BMA, the Walters, the Peabody, a burgeoning art department at Morgan, an amazing community art scene, the BSO & Marin Alsop, et cetera—how can this be?
In my view, it is because Baltimore has never fully claimed its identity. Austin is finding success because it has latched onto an identity that is unusual and distinguishes it from other cities, not unlike Philadelphia’s new found mural fame. This might be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that Baltimore already has something that sets it apart from other cities, and that is its neighborhoods. Now here’s my audacious idea. Since artists are often the ones to usher in the transformation of a neighborhood, why not help the residents be the artists and turn their own neighborhoods around with their own unique vision and style, while also increasing their own property values?
And here’s how we can do it. Fabulous art is already being created by youth and residents in neighborhoods throughout the city with the help of remarkable groups such as Art on Purpose, The Culture Works Project, Art with a Heart, Banner Neighborhoods, Kids On The Hill, Community Garden Art Project, RAP (Rebuilding Thru Art Project), and Baltimore Clayworks, to name but a few.
However, rather than creating single projects here and there, why not connect them visually so that whole blocks become unique works unto themselves? Using this model, we are presently creating the prototype for “ARTblocks” in a Park Heights neighborhood (see www.artblocks.org for info). Our vision is to connect these city-wide ARTblocks—on a map or through banners or by other creative means—so that the overarching picture of Baltimore is one that reflects the cultural and artistic diversity of its neighborhoods and more importantly, of the people who live there.