(e)merge and The Washington/Baltimore Divide

by Paddy Johnson on October 5, 2012 · 7 comments Newswire

Conor Backman, installation view at Mixed Greens

“This fair isn’t about making money” (e)merge art fair co-owner Helen Allen told me last night. According to Allen, it’s more about building community, a point evident in the attendees. Walking through the halls of the Capital Skyline Hotel in Washington took several hours last night, as everyone seemed to know everyone. (e)merge is the definition of a community-based fair.

This is important, because the emerging scene in Washington is challenged by realities that aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Real estate prices are high, there aren’t old warehouses for artists to occupy, and there aren’t an enormous number of art schools. As a result, a large number of artists opt to live in Baltimore, where rent is cheap, studio space is easy to come by, and MICA dominates. Baltimore, for its part, has its own challenges, and no collector support to speak of.

Washington, by contrast, has plenty of collectors, which is why it’s strange to see so few Baltimore galleries at the fair. According to the (e)merge website, only two galleries from the city showcased their work this year (MICA being one of them), though another six artists and two collectives participated independently.

“Honestly, as far as commercial galleries go, Baltimore really only has a handful of spaces and most of them closed over the last two years,” Cara Ober, a Baltimore-based artist and founder of BmoreArt, told me. “It’s mostly economics.”

But what of the seemingly endless number of artist spaces in Baltimore? None of them chose to participate, but Goya Contemporary Director Amy Raehse, representing the only Baltimore-based gallery in the fair, was quick to point out the number of unrepresented artists from Baltimore participating. Their work is part of the fair’s “Artist Platform”, which features a vetted selection of works throughout the hotel’s public areas.

“Full disclosure, I’m on the vetting committee,” she told me, as she described the gallery’s dedication to developing the scene between Baltimore and Washington. The committee includes White Columns’s Matthew Higgs and Public Art Fund Co-Founder Yvonne Force Villareal, so the vetting itself helps with exposure; Raehse, though, believes many of the connections already exist. Baltimore artists exhibit in Washington, and teachers in Washington live in Baltimore; “There’s a lot of ties and connections,” Raehse told me.

For all these connections, there does appear to be some tension between the two scenes. “D.C. and Baltimore have a strange rivalry, a difference of ethos and taste and perception of art,” Alex Ebstein, co-founder of Baltimore’s artist-run space Nudashank, told me. Guest Spot owner Rod Malin echoed this sentiment as well, suggesting that many of Baltimore’s collectively run spaces opted out because it was “more how these galleries want to be seen.”  Washington is seen as a more conservative, and because “most of these [Baltimore] galleries are paying 400-500 a month, they can do more experimental shows,” he explained. In Malin’s case, however, he opted about because he was worried he wouldn’t sell anything.

Epstein was also concerned about this, adding, “It’s 5,000 dollars for a room. It’s not an ideal exhibition space.” She went on to note, “The fair has no special considerations for smaller programs, and no project booths or discounted rates.”

Nudashank participated in Aqua Miami in 2010, which would have cost considerably more than this, but every gallery has to carefully budget for the fairs they will attend each year. Epstein conceded that they’d considered doing (e)merge with artist Conor Backman, but he ultimately ended up showing at the fair with the New York-based gallery Mixed Greens. Nudashank thusly opted out of the fair, citing differences in programming as an issue. That ultimately, is loss for (e)merge, a community-based fair that could use a few more Baltimore based spaces in the mix.


JosephYoung October 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm


–from bmore

Seth Adelsberger October 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm

When it comes down to it, when a gallery does an art fair, it is about reaching a new audience. So if a Baltimore gallery has the resources to do one art fair, it should either be in NYC or Miami. Art fairs ARE about selling art in the hopes of at least covering the costs and developing new collector relationships that could develop into long term support. Before any implied beefs “emerge”, the most obvious differences between the two neighbor cities is in aesthetics which is defined by the socio economic landscapes, the availability of affordable studio space, cultural history, etc. On whole, I would say that Baltimore galleries (esp. artist run ones) are not interested in catering to/ courting attention from DC. Any collectors there are likely more interested in supporting the immediately local galleries because they struggle as much as anyone else to stay afloat. When looking at the participating DC galleries, the non-profits are there because the cost of a booth is more reasonable and is easily included as a part of an annual budget funded by high ticket art gala fundraisers. This is where most art is purchased in DC because of the added philanthropy points involved.

Paddy Johnson October 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I have to say, on the surface, there’s a great deal of appeal in the idea that because Washington has collectors and Baltimore has good artists, that the two cities would work together to grow the scene. Of course, things are always more complicated than that. If DC collectors are accustomed to buying from New York and giving to DC fundraisers, these patterns are not so easy to change. I expect you’d need a couple of dealers with close connections (maybe family) in both Baltimore and Washington to create the kind of motivation to even want to work to sway that.

All that said, I’m curious about “catering to/courting attention from” DC means. I mean, it seems like a funny way to describe participating in an art fair. You’re just looking for collectors. I understand Nudashank already knows a number of the large ones in Washington, so I can see sitting the fair out if you don’t have an artist you know they’d be interested in.

I guess from my perspective, which is necessarily an outside one, I wish there was a way to give the DC scene a little life and the Baltimore scene a little money. (e)merge, it has to be said, is a thousand times better than it was last year, but it still got a raised eyebrow an artist friend who lives in the city. I’m generalizing here, but it seems like if you’re a DC artist working at a high level, this fair —which to my mind is does a good job doing what it does (last year’s cheerleaders notwithstanding)—still seems to remind them that the city doesn’t offer artists all that much.

Justin Vernon October 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

As an artist working in DC, I would like to point out a couple things about this divide. First, there is what I see as a major structural hurdle to an improved DC/BMore connection. Namely the MARC train schedule. No weekend service = pricey-ish Amtrak or car. With so much art worlding done on the weekends that is pretty problematic.

In regards to studio space, there are warehouses here, I promise. Perhaps not as many as Baltimore due to differing manufacturing histories, but they are available. And not as pricey as the stereotypes might tell you. As for “city doesn’t offer artists all that much.”, which I know was prefaced as a generalization, I would quickly point to the public funding availability for artists residing within the DC city limits. The arts commission here is suffering from dwindling budgets as much as any granting agency, but it remains a state-ish level org. providing funds to a city sized population, directed mainly at non-commercial gallery practices.

Paddy Johnson October 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I guess that is an issue, though the mega bus makes those trips no?

My understanding was that some of the warehouses in DC were a little outside the city and therefore not always desirable. Is that not the case?

Funding can make a huge difference to communities. Philly’s a great example of that, as there’s a lot of private foundation support in the city even though there’s not many collectors. I think they’ve got a great scene there.

Justin Vernon October 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm

True, re: megabus, but I believe that the Bmore side is White Marsh mall, hardly the art city center.

As for the warehouses, many are within the city limits, but not necessarily in desirable locations. (Read: public transportation/crime/etc) But this seems to be the case with most artist studio scenarios. Admittedly many of these buildings are quite large, with developers who desire one name on a lease (ie subletting/managing a space with all the joys that entails) Though this seems a different problem than a total dearth of possible studio spaces.

And agreed re: Philly and funding.

s. true kwak October 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I live in Baltimore (I used to live in DC) and have an arts admin job in DC & commute every weekday to DC. I prefer Baltimore in terms of what’s being created there, but there is more money in DC, for sure, and any art that I have sold has come from people based in DC. The MARC train is not great but it’s not an awful commute, and I think the main divide is a psychological one — DC tends to think of Baltimore as dirty, dangerous, poor, and have a lot of pride in DC that kind of makes bridging the gap difficult. A lot of non-artists in Baltimore look up to DC as a place of power and prestige and as a place to move on up, (even though DC also has issues with violence and poverty), but Baltimore artists tend to think of DC as really expensive (which it is) and more conservative and catering to an audience maybe they don’t necessarily want to cater to. And they also have their own Baltimore pride that makes bridging the gap difficult.

I agree, there aren’t a whole lot of warehouses in DC, and a lot of them have been sold off. A lot of creative stuff is done in group houses, but it’s just not the same as in warehouses, and I think a huge problem with DC artists is wanting to emulate stuff that artists and musicians in New York do. The music made in DC right now I think also suffers from this a lot. A lot of people seem to really want to move to Brooklyn, and therefore are not really being able to do their own thing, find their own style. The warehouses in Baltimore are a lot bigger and under much less threat of being sold off, and artists there aren’t as New York-centric (though of course there a still tons of people who want to move to New York once they get the $$ and job thing situated).

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