What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

On a Sunday afternoon in November, downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is abuzz. It’s day three of

Surendra Chaddha, part-owner of smoke shop Tobacco ETC, says business is down 35 percent from when his store opened in the Pratt Street pavilion nearly a decade ago. He blames years-delayed and poorly executed interior renovations, as well as the constant drumbeat of news about crime happening nearby, which he says discourages visitors. ”Foot traffic is getting, every day, lower and lower and lower.”

Harborplace’s dying-mall vibe is no secret to Baltimoreans, but it’s still a shocking reversal for an attraction hailed as an urban game-changer and a national model when it opened in 1980. The brainchild of developer James Rouse and architect Benjamin Thompson, Harborplace was the Rouse Company’s first scratch-built festival marketplace, following their successful transformation of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall into a retail attraction in 1976. Supported by a controversial 1978 ballot referendum and federal funding for an adjoining hotel from HUD’s Urban Development Action Grant program, the $20 million waterfront shopping plaza debuted on July 2, 1980, at a celebration reportedly attended by thousands featuring a live performance from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and fireworks to boot.

Harborplace joined a cluster of waterfront elements that the city’s leaders were assembling around its U-shaped harbor, a grim landscape of rotting wharves that had fallen into disuse since World War II. A science center and the I.M. Pei-designed World Trade Center office tower were already in place; an aquarium and the first of several downtown hotels were on their way. Nearby were a new convention center and the Charles Center complex—the city’s 1960’s-era urban renewal centerpiece. “This is the missing ingredient that makes it all work as one,” declared Martin Millspaugh, the head of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management and an architect of the city’s postwar revival. “Instead of a series of attractions, we’ll have one massive attraction: the shoreline.”

Opening day for Harborplace in July 1980. (Gerald Martineau—TWP/Photo by The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It worked, brilliantly. Harborplace collected 7 million visitors—its projected total for the first year—within three months. In the New York Times, critic Paul Goldberger praised the pavilions as a “stunning success.” James Rouse landed on Time magazine in 1981, his beaming face beside the ebullient coverline “Cities Are Fun!” Baltimore was celebrated—and copied—in cities across the country for blazing a path to post-industrial resurgence, one paved in tourist dollars: Harborplace went on to inspire a slew of other festival marketplaces around the country, from Toledo’s Portside to New Orleans’ Riverwalk.

“They created the demand. There wasn’t this phenomenon of festival marketplaces at the time,” says Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which sponsors programming around the Inner Harbor and cares for its public spaces. “It was a very unique feature that created a curiosity and interest and excitement that drove people to the Inner Harbor, both tourists and locals.”

But 40 years out, the festival marketplace party is over—and not just in Baltimore. A few cities—including Tampa, Miami and Norfolk (which did demolish part of its original Waterside complex)—have given these facilities new life by working with developers to rebrand and update them. Others have succumbed to the wrecking ball. In Richmond, Virginia, the failed 6th Street Marketplace was razed in 2003, and the land reopened to pedestrians and traffic. In Jacksonville, Florida, crews recently demolished the Jacksonville Landing marketplace to replace the complex with, well, nothing, after the city agreed to a $15 million settlement to acquire it from its now-former owner.

Harborplace remains, for now, but it faces a deeply uncertain future. Last June, a city circuit court judge placed the property under receivership, putting New Jersey-based IVL Group in possession of the buildings and wresting control from New York City’s Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation. Ashkenazy had purchased Harborplace—also acquiring its lease of city-owned property running through 2087—for nearly $100 million in 2012. A recent Baltimore Business Journal investigation noted, among other discoveries, that Ashkenazy did not pay ground rent on the property since July 2014 under a now-finished rent abatement deal with the city.

Tourist vessels of all shapes and sizes dock outside the Light Street Pavilion (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

IVL Group, whose website says it specializes in “distressed asset and property management,” is managing and leasing Harborplace on behalf of Deutsche Bank Trust Co. Americas, the trustee for UBS-Barclays Commercial Mortgage Trust, which holds the mortgage on the property. The receivership opened the door for a potential sale of the troubled plaza, though IVL Group’s plans remain unclear. Asked about the pavilions’ future, the firm’s president, Ian Lagowitz, responded via email, “at this time I have no comment.”

Last summer’s receivership news and sluggish foot traffic prompted plenty of concern about the fate of the struggling pavilions. Baltimore Mayor Jack Young opined at one point that they should “be torn down and redone” (comments he later walked back, sort of). The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board suggested a “a partial tear-down and rebuild,” among other ideas.

Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Baltimore leader to suggest taking a wrecking ball to the city’s marquee attraction. But now the groundbreaking shopping center that saved the city is fighting for its own life.

***

Harborplace was never supposed to just be just a mall. Its initial strength was its locally made goods and food, says Jimmy Rouse, a Baltimore artist and one of the late developer’s two sons. He recalls his father bringing them to the Lexington Market and North Avenue Market—outposts of Baltimore’s network of public markets, the nation’s oldest—when they were growing up. The crowded, chaotic sheds full of vegetable stands, fish stalls, and lunch carry-outs provided the kind of urban vitality that the elder Rouse tried to inject into the shopping malls and planned communities he was known for.

“He loved the idea of having a meat purveyor, a cheese purveyor, a produce purveyor, all these separate, individual merchants,” Jimmy Rouse says. “When he started Harborplace, part of the vision was to recreate that, have an independent meat and cheese dealer… produce, flowers, all these individual merchants in there, along with retail that was impulse buying.”

When the New York Times ventured back to Harborplace for a food review in 1983, writer Marian Burros found dozens of vendors selling everything “from crabcakes to kielbasa,” and cited Indian, Greek, Chinese and other options, plus indigenous favorites like cheese bread from Ms. Desserts, lemon sticks, and coddies. A mainstay of the early Harborplace was The Fudgery, an aggressively fun candy vendor known for its exuberant young staff of singing fudge-makers. (The R&B group Dru Hill began their careers there.)

The throngs of visitors inside Harborplace in 1981, one year after it opened. (William Smith/AP)

It’s hard to overstate how transformative Harborplace was for Baltimore’s sense of itself in the 1980s and ‘90s. Even locals who shunned the twin pavilions as cartoony tourist traps often found themselves drawn to the waterside, especially when hosting out-of-town visitors. Baltimore held plenty of more “authentic” haunts, but it was Harborplace, and the circuit of Inner Harbor attractions it anchored, that dominated every television ad or visitor’s center brochure.

As time wore on, however—and cookie-cutter festival marketplaces popped up in dozens of other cities—the facility’s charms began to seem less distinctive. What was once a one-of-kind attraction became just one of a network of glitzy waterfront shopping emporia. The homogenization was internal, as well, as national brands began to replace the local merchants. “Chains dilute local flavor of Harborplace,” read a headline on a 2002 Baltimore Sun story that noted a troubling loss of independent retailers at the water’s edge.

Joshua Olsen, an executive vice president for D.C.-based developer Monument Realty and author of a 2003 biography on James Rouse, says Harborplace and other festival marketplaces “were victims of their own success.” Big names like Starbucks, Hooters, and UNO Pizzeria saw the retail spaces’ popularity and moved in, and smaller, locally owned retailers were priced out of leases.

Even the ownership lost its local flavor. Harborplace changed hands in 2004, when the Rouse Company was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which at the time owned or managed 178 regional shopping malls in 41 states. New York-based Ashkenazy acquired the pavilions from GGP in 2013.

Ashkenazy had planned to modernize the pavilions in 2016 and 2017, including updating the facades and interior retail spaces and adding a marketplace on the second floor of the Pratt Street side. But the work lagged and, based on previously presented designs, never fully materialized. And the exodus of tenants quickened.  

Inside Harborplace today, vacancies abound. (Ethan McLeod/CityLab)

Jimmy Rouse has watched as all this misfortune descended on the pavilions his father built, and he’s convinced that they could be be revitalized by simply going back to the original formula that made Harborplace such a hit in 1980: a renewed focus on local. His ideal restoration would “emphasize small merchants, not big national chains that the previous owners have tried to bring in there and that didn’t work. You need made-in-Maryland, made-in-Baltimore.”

It would also ideally be managed by an invested, Maryland-based owner, not an outside firm with an entire national portfolio to manage, Rouse says: “It needs an owner that cares. It’s had two really bad owners in a row, both from out of town.”

But the customer base is there and untapped, he argues, pointing to newly built high-rises and conversions of offices into apartments around the harbor. “There are more residents living downtown than at any time in Baltimore’s history,” Rouse says—not to mention the still-vigorous stream of visitors drawn by other Inner Harbor attractions like the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. In neighborhoods beyond the harbor, freshly minted food halls are packing in hungry crowds; by returning to its 1980s roots, Harborplace could jump aboard a very hot urban dining trend.

“I think there’s a grand opportunity there,” Rouse says. “And I’m sure if my father were alive, he’d see it as a grand opportunity.”

***

But saving Harborplace might not be that simple: Changing consumer demands, design considerations, and even rising sea levels may all be working against the future viability of the two pavilions.

“They fall into the period of malls being social places of gathering,” says Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect and urban design blogger. “And the mall is obsolete now, and the mini-mall on the waterfront is obsolete as well.”

The toast of the city when it opened in 1980, Harborplace now awaits its revival. (Ethan McLeod/CityLab)

Harborplace’s connectivity to the city is also hampered by street design, Philipsen notes: It’s ringed by multi-lane thoroughfares feeding the two interstate highways, I-95 and I-83, that penetrate the city. Pedestrians coming from downtown need to cross thick spans of traffic to reach the shopping areas. To facilitate better walkability, he suggests eliminating lanes on Pratt and Light streets, to “make these highways less highway-like and more like a city boulevard.”

Another local architect, Adam Gross of downtown architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, which prepared a comprehensive Inner Harbor master plan for the Waterfront Partnership in 2013, blames the pavilions themselves: While they collected many design awards in their time, they have “dated horribly, architecturally,” he says. “There’s just way too much ill-defined space.” Many of the pavilions’ tenant spaces have entryways facing busy streets, not the water nearby, and have exposed loading docks. “I would strip it back to the raw concrete, at a minimum, and just make them glass pavilions,” Gross says.

Business leaders have called for addressing the market’s subpar street-level access and compromised views for years. A spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit that represents downtown neighborhoods’ commercial and residential interests, noted its 2008 Pratt Street renewal plan recommended better screening of mechanical equipment and loading docks, among other aesthetic improvements. (The organization otherwise declined to comment on Harborplace’s future, saying its territory ends north of the waterfront, and deferred to the Waterfront Partnership.)

Randy Sovich, a North Baltimore-based architect, says for both pavilions, “the existing building shell would lend itself to other uses or configurations” like city-owned public makerspaces and marketplaces. Design-wise, he similarly envisions more transparent structures, offering New York City’s Pier 17—a recent transformation of another early waterfront Rouse project—as an example.

“I’m picturing a new expanded roof structure/platform that would be a public space,” he said via email. He also suggested the Pratt Street pavilion’s second level may be superfluous and could instead be made into “an open elevated park space.”

Sovich is co-editor of the architecture zine T3XTURE, which collaborated with the AIA’s Baltimore chapter and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation in 2019 on a design competition that challenged designers and architects to rethink the harbor’s edge. While a number of the 13 finalist proposals retained the pavilions, some of them proposed replacing one or both with green or public space. Many included ambitious plans to better connect waterways flowing into the harbor, or providing for more softscape and natural elements.

One, designed by University of Maryland landscape architecture students, proposes reforesting the area where the Light Street pavilion now sits to create a new softscape canopy. Another, from Murphy and Dittenhafer Architects, suggests using repurposed dredged material in the Inner Harbor to mitigate storm surges.

Architects Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis submitted a design that Danz says is “based around recreation, not shopping like it is now.” The current Inner Harbor, she says, includes “too much hardscape. It just needs to be more green, and I think it could be more open.” Their idea centers around carving out inlets to let water flow from the harbor to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Maryland Science Center, and other nearby inland areas. It would also add waterside recreational spaces and install permeable surfaces, parks, and green roofs to better manage stormwater runoff.

A post-retail Harborplace plan, “Permeable Futures,” from Kelly Danz and Amanda Ganginis, would remove one of the mall’s two current pavilions. (Courtesy of AIA Baltimore, the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, and T3XTURE.

Yet, even while removing the Light Street pavilion, they opted to keep the Pratt Street one in their vision. “We should have some sense of history,” Danz says. “We didn’t want to completely disregard the entire existing fabric.”

Repurposing the property for noncommercial use like a wetland park would take more than just re-engineering the space: It would almost surely require changing the city charter. The document, which serves as Baltimore’s local constitution, says the city-owned land where Harborplace was built “shall be set aside” for use as “eating places and other commercial uses.” Any changes to the charter must be passed by the Baltimore City Council, and then approved by voters via ballot referenda.

As Danz suggests, there’s also an argument to be made that the buildings are too culturally valuable to simply erase from the map. Approaching their 40th birthday, the pavilions represent the nucleus of a successful revitalization campaign for a post-industrial wasteland where few locals (and even fewer tourists) once wanted to set foot.

Olsen, the developer and Rouse biographer, says “to some extent, the structures are historic—with a little ‘h’—in terms of the role they played in remaking Baltimore and the city as a whole.” But “just because a design had an impact 30 years ago doesn’t mean it’s the right design for today,” he says. “Those pavilions were always designed to disappear to some extent.”

The harbor itself may have its own role to play in that erasure. A 2017 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report found the Chesapeake Bay area is the third most vulnerable area to climate change in the United States. Projections published last year by researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science predict that  so-called nuisance flooding days in Baltimore are likely to continue growing annually to 100 per year on average by 2050; flooding could occur almost daily in the Inner Harbor by 2100.

One graphic from their report shows the pavilions surrounded by water in 2100 following a potential one-two punch of a powerful hurricane storm surge and sea-level rise. Residents got a taste of this already following Hurricane Isabel in 2003, when the Inner Harbor promenade submerged under four feet of water.

“Climate change has and will have a greater impact in the years to come,” notes Schwartz of the Waterfront Partnership, “so that’s got to be incorporated into any plans as well.”

Whatever happens to Harborplace—whether it gets reborn as an eco-friendly park or as a bustling urban market more in line with its creators’ vision—many locals are hoping that it can cater to the wants and needs of different kinds of users.

Standing outside the Light Street pavilion in early November, Alice Kennedy, visiting with her daughter for the day, says her ideal revamped Harborplace would boast more family-friendly entertainment, and pivot more towards what Baltimoreans—not just tourists—want.

“Building a space specifically just for tourism, I don’t think benefits us as a city as a whole,” she says. “The local is not looking for a Boh shirt. It’s about finding that balance between what can help and drive the tourism economy, but what can be captured by our local economy as well.”

Schwartz thinks that answering the question about what to do with Harborplace will require “serious research and conversation” with those who will spend time there. It should also account for landscape and programming changes already planned, she said, like the forthcoming first phase of renovations of Rash Field—a somewhat neglected waterfront park space at the southern end of the Inner Harbor—or the National Aquarium’s $14 million floating wetlands project.

The existential question is thus about “not just that one property,” but the broader area, she says. “It’s a very, very different environment now than when Harborplace opened… It is time for a new look at the Inner Harbor. It is 40 years old. I think it could use some new thinking.”

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How Small-Scale Composting Is Empowering Baltimore Youth (Episode 89)

Host Linda Bilsens Brolis sat down with Marvin Hayes of the Baltimore Compost Collective for an inspiring conversation about the future of small-scale composting in Baltimore. Marvin and Linda talk about how the Baltimore Compost Collective is empowering and employing local youth while also revitalizing South Baltimore, creating quality compost and fighting food deserts. … Read More

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What the Gentrification of Baltimore’s Chinatown Means

The remains of Baltimore’s once-thriving Chinatown are now so sparse that most who venture into the city might not realize it’s there. All but one Chinese restaurant along Park Avenue, the historic core of Chinatown, have closed, leaving behind deteriorating facades with the Eastern-architectural touches that have become synonymous with Chinatowns worldwide.

Yet after several decades of neglect, a renewed vibrancy has emerged: Many of the ornate facades have been supplemented with Ethiopian flags and Amharic lettering on storefront windows. A row of abandoned buildings is enveloped by a large mural of a Chinese dragon and an Ethiopian lion, signifying the neighborhood’s past and present communities. Over the course of a . “The Night Market proved that there could be something there that is more permanent.”

In January, the Collective made an agreement with an group of non-Asian developers who are planning a $30 million redevelopment of Chinatown. One of the developers, Vitruvius Co., plans to build an 80,000-square-foot apartment building on a vacant lot in the 400 block of Park Avenue, and with partners, has purchased nearby properties, some with existing historical buildings, for future projects. While a low-income housing shortage has led the state and city to commit to adding affordable units in Baltimore’s downtown, most of the units at the Vitruvius building will be market rate, with only 10 percent earmarked for affordable housing.

The Chinatown Collective’s partnership with the developers has drawn criticism from some who view the collaboration as an attempt to use the Chinatown brand as an engine of displacement, since, as part of its relationship with the developers, the Collective will consult on the design of the complex’s street-level shops and restaurants, ensuring that they hew to the neighborhood’s historical character.

“The ‘rebuilding’ of a Baltimore Chinatown would be an artificial attempt to conjure up some Orientalist exotic and Disneyfied fragment of what a true Chinatown community is,” said Andrew Leong, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies urban Chinatowns. As he views it, any attempt to rebuild Chinatown is inherently exclusionary of the Ethiopian community that currently exists. “The best way to honor what was Baltimore Chinatown is to allow for the growth, nurture, and protection of the current Ethiopian community. While there might remain certain markers of an earlier community, there might be now a new community that is worthy of fighting for its own existence.”

Stephanie Hsu, an organizer with the Chinatown Collective, doesn’t believe that the developments are negating the Ethiopian community’s claim to the space. She says that the ethnic transition of the area is in keeping with the history of Chinatowns: “The legacy of Chinatown is that they make space for more immigrant communities. We don’t like to say that Chinatown is dying or needs to be revitalized; there is very much an exciting commerce community that exists right now. Our effort to highlight the history of the space is by no means a statement of erasure of the community that exists there now.”

As to the Collective’s work with the developers, Hsu refused to define the relationship as consulting, saying that their role is only to ensure the project is in keeping with the Chinatown legacy. “We are not consulting. Consulting work would be if we got paid. What we are trying to do is find businesses that are culturally appropriate with the area.”

But Hsu also hopes that the Collective’s work will help to expand conversations about race in Baltimore. “The way we think about our place and our work here is largely in relation to the city: What does it mean to be not black and not white in a city that sees race in a very binary way?” she said. “I think it’s important to say that the conversations we hope to have are ones that … would add to the conversation and not detract from [it]. When we think about our future work in the city, what we are really thinking about is the sense of belonging, a sense of legacy in picking up where our elders left off.”

Since the development plans were announced, some of the Ethiopian business owners are feeling uneasy. Teklu is unsure how long his grocery store will be able to last. “When before, I first opened my store, the rent was $1,000; now it’s $1,200. Now I even hear that my landlord might sell the building.”

Yonis, a 29-year-old Ethiopian who owns a hookah lounge on Park Avenue, immigrated to Baltimore with his family when he was 16. He says he is proud of how the neighborhood has transformed in the past few years from a virtual ghost town to what it is today. However, Yonis can’t help but resent the recent development plans because as he sees it, it was his community that revived the neighborhood first. “Back in 2009, there was nothing here. You could not even walk out at night. We came through and opened businesses and fixed houses. So, I don’t know, but maybe now when they see what we have done they want to take it back and rebuild again.”

Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the Baltimore district that includes Chinatown, downplayed the worries about gentrification expressed by Ethiopian business owners, telling CityLab: “I can’t speak to that. There have been a number of Ethiopian business owners who have done some exciting things and I’m supportive of revitalizing the area. I’m going to be supportive of Ethiopian folks who are doing the work that they are doing and I’m also supportive of the work of the Chinatown Collective.”   

When asked whether he was concerned that the project includes so few affordable housing units, Costello replied: “It doesn’t concern me at all, considering there is a plethora of affordable housing that has been recently delivered or is in the hopper in that larger geographic area. We need mixed-income communities and that’s what we’re building in downtown’s west side.”

To critics, the entire redevelopment seems like an overt attempt to cash in on the Chinatown “experience.“ “The problem here is that Chinatown is being monetized for primarily affluent whites who want the authentic experience, and it’s a faux experience,” said Banks. “Most of the old buildings have been destroyed. God knows what they’re going to build, some kind of fake stuff, like a Chinatown gate?”

As Leong describes it: “Let’s string Chinese lanterns all over the street, and dragons to adorn the mailroom, and don’t forget the elevators could now have floor numbers in English and Chinese … how quaint and cultural. That will bring in all the hipsters and empty nesters since they, too, now can say that they are so cool that they are living in Chinatown.”

The gentrification happening in Baltimore’s Chinatown is not unique. Chinatowns across the country are under pressure from developers who exploit such neighborhoods’ rich cultural history as a marketing strategy, often resulting in the loss of either old or new communities. Yet, historians say, community support and strength were the elements that made Chinatowns so important in the fight against legalized anti-Asian racism and discrimination, and in the maintenance of Chinese immigrants’ beleaguered cultural heritage.

“The bottom line is that most gentrification battles taking place either in Chinatowns across the U.S. or other ethnic communities pits the developers, city hall, and gentrifiers on one side against the rights of those occupying that same space currently,” said Leong. “Food and music alone will not substitute for what was lost. Those two things are only superficial markers, since a true community speaks of and is defined by membership, belonging, and cultural celebration in all its forms.”

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The Baltimore Museum of Art Made a Pledge to Buy Art by Women. Is It Just a Stunt?

To great fanfare, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced earlier in November that the institution will only purchase works made by women in 2020. Just 4 percent of the museum’s 95,000 artworks and objects were made by women, typical of the gross imbalance in art collections across America and around the world.

Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director since 2016, described the initiative as a proactive effort to address a root problem for the art world. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” he told The Baltimore Sun.  

“Women are about to take over the Baltimore Museum of Art,” reads a story in The Wall Street Journal.

Yet one group is raising questions and concerns about the new push at the Baltimore Museum of Art: women in the arts in Baltimore. In a November 26 feature published by BmoreArt, a magazine devoted to the arts in Charm City, more than two-dozen women registered their impressions of the museum’s pledge. Some used words such as “tokenism” and “contrived.” An editorial from editor-in-chief Cara Ober and managing editor Rebekah Kirkman described the announcement as “headline friendly.”

That much is true: CNN, NPR, and scores of other publications—to say nothing of the art press—have run articles about the museum’s “2020 Vision.” As the reports detail, the museum has planned 22 exhibits for 2020 focusing on woman-identifying artists, including a major commission by Mickalene Thomas and a career survey of Joan Mitchell. Nineteen of the shows will feature only works by women.

This comes a year after the Baltimore Museum of Art made a splash with the sale of seven works by modern masters, among them Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to generate millions for what Bedford describes as a “war chest” to fund purchases of works by underrepresented artists.

The latest push is a “better platform” but still a “boxed platform,” writes Maura Callahan, a Baltimore arts writer, in one of the 27 letters published by BmoreArt. “By making gender a point of promotion, the museum frames the work of these artists through that non-default category, reinforcing the woman artist as a spectacle,” she writes.

Several of the letters echo shared concerns: about the far greater and disproportionate absence of artworks by African American women, for example, or the lack of women in leadership positions to steer decisions made by the museum.

“Why did a male’s call to action seem to resonate so loudly in this instance when women are the subject and have been calling for the same action forever?” asks Donna Drew Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the city’s official arts council. “Is this initiative an exceptional act of inclusion or exceptional because of pervasive exclusion?”

Sawyer’s letter adds, “A year in the limelight, just like a month to have your history recognized, is inadequate at best.”

How much difference can a single year’s effort really make in an encyclopedic art collection? Bedford declined a request for an interview to discuss the matter, but the museum sent along some outlines about its collection practices. The reality might fall short of the headline-fetching promise.

In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art participated in a study conducted by two art publications, artnet News and In Other Words. Between 2008 and 2018, just 12 percent of the museum’s acquisitions were made by artists who identified as women—a bleak figure in line with the rest of the art world. Acquisitions break down into two groups: purchases and gifts. Of the 570 acquisitions of artworks by women over a decade, 235 were purchases. These things change from year to year, but that works out to about two dozen purchases per year.

For 2020, the museum plans to spend $2 million on art, using funds from last year’s sale. Such a purse could buy a few works by prominent artists, several pieces by mid-career or emerging artists, or some combination. Curators propose purchases, museum committees review them, and the board of trustees approves them. Gifts to the museum won’t be affected, raising the somewhat dismal prospect that, by the end of next year, the museum may still have acquired more works by men than women.

“The first thought that occurred to me when I saw the headline was the fact that collecting a piece of art doesn’t automatically guarantee that the artist will find a viewing audience,” writes Priyanka Kumar, a graduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Her letter calls for programming and outreach at the local level to match the purchasing pledge. Other letter writers—among them journalist Jillian Steinhauer, who notes that work by Latinx, Native, and trans artists are all underrepresented in formal art spaces, too—wonder if there’s a plan for after 2020.  

Bedford has undeniably put Baltimore at the center of a conversation about inclusion in the art world. Beyond garnering the attention of the national press, he has championed the work of Mark Bradford, whose appearance at the Venice Biennale he organized (and brought to Baltimore), and Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait (now in the Baltimore collection). Bedford has raised some eyebrows along the way, too.

“You can call it canon correction, but it is a kind of reparations,” Bedford said in his interview with the Journal. At one level, that’s just cringe: Casting the needs of a museum’s art collection in the same urgent moral terms as the fight to correct centuries of slavery and legal injustice could be considered counterproductive. The point about canon correction, however, anticipates a question raised by Nancy Proctor, executive director of the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture.

“My question is, are they also doing the self-critical reflection necessary to interrogate the structures of power that have not only produced the BMA’s collection and exhibitions, but are also produced by it?” Proctor’s letter says. “As Audre Lorde warned us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’”

In the art world, radical change can be fleeting. In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society teamed up with a group called The Contemporary to bring in an outside curator, conceptual artist Fred Wilson, to re-think the permanent collection. Through the museum’s artifacts, he assembled an exhibition that focused on the stories of enslaved African Americans and brutalized Native Americans. “Mining the Museum” is considered a mile-marker for curatorial studies today, and it was popular with audiences at the time, but a year after the exhibition opened in Baltimore, the society’s director was pushed out. Press reports held that the change was too much for the board.

By no means are women in the arts in Baltimore wholly rejecting the overture from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leslie King-Hammond, founding director for the Center for Race and Culture at MICA (and graduate dean emeritus), praises the initiative as a “pivotal wake-up call for numerous art and cultural institutions in this nation who find themselves facing similar challenges.” Most of the letters in BmoreArt express a mixture of optimism and skepticism.

“Could the committee decide to collect two works by women for every work collected by a man for the rest of time until the collection is balanced and write that into your bylaws?” Ober asks. While the museum’s pledge for 2020 is welcome, radical change might still be a ways off.

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