Baltimore Alternative Art Fair
Charles Street Garage
1714 Charles Street, Baltimore, MD
What’s on view: Over 15 artist-run and alternative spaces come together for a free art fair in a parking garage. Just like most art fairs, there’s booths, but held in the middle of the Artscape festival, which attracts over 350,000 visitors per year, there’s not so many collectors as there are baby strollers and dads from the suburbs getting sunburned. Also unlike most high-end art fairs, there were kids playing with art, art that could be driven around the festival on bicycles, and plenty of affordable prints and zines for sale.
Baltimore’s only contemporary art fair takes place in a parking garage. And for a city with an art scene run on nothing more than the sheer willingness of its art school grads to get things done, and cheaply, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
There are plenty of artists and artist-run spaces in this city, but not much in the way of blue-chip galleries; putting on a cut-and-dry money-making venture such as an art fair might not make much sense. But when that fair takes place in a parking garage on a shoestring budget, those concerns start to diminish.
Nick Peelor and Margo Malter of Open Space—who also happen to help organize the PMF, the city’s annual prints and multiples fair—were responsible for the Alternative Art Fair this year. They pitched the idea to a friend who works with BOPA (Baltimore Office and Promotion of the Arts), got walls donated from MICA, and that’s that. Exhibitors had to pay $80 for a booth—unheard of for any other art fair—so recouping expenses seemed minimal.
Most “dealers”—I hesitate to even call them that, they’re mostly just artists making sales—had been more successful with what seemed like dirt-cheap art. Current Space had sold several editions of a $20 print by artist Justin Lucas. That print, of Big Boyz Bail Bonds pens, a local business that everyone we spoke with seemed to have grown up with, must’ve appealed to a local crowd. Other dealers with more expensive work seemed less successful. One noted that she had seen one collector had dropped by.
Was the art any good? It was alright. Think NADA’s spray-painted, squiggly abstract paintings, but fewer of them; mostly you’d see fluffy, DIY objects on the walls, more zines, and photography.
I don’t know if we’ll see a second edition of Baltimore’s Alternative Art Fair, but I hope so. There was so much unrefined energy—Little Berlin put on a performance of “trash yoga” where performers writhed around on cardboard boxes in a makeshift subway-station booth. And coming from New York, where almost every painting seems pre-branded, pre-packaged for sale on the market, a little bit of the unrefined goes a long way. For a moment, I thought I’d been transported back to art school in Chicago, when art actually seemed exciting.
It’s too bad that people outside of Baltimore weren’t getting to see all this. They certainly weren’t at the fair this weekend.
If the fair wants to grow an audience and dialogue beyond its Artscape borders, I wonder if it should take a look at what happened with Los Angeles, Glasgow, and even Berlin. Lane Relyea talks about some of those changes that contributed to L.A.’s art boom in the 1990s in his recent book, Your Everyday Art World:
The secret to Los Angeles’s emergence as a center in the 1990s was that it succeeded at functioning less like a self-contained hierarchy and more like a hub or platform—it didn’t root itself more deeply in a local identity and economy but grew more porous and horizontally interpenetrated, more easily exchanging its art, artists, and art money with other places.
That might be a pretty dry assessment of an exciting moment, but yes, the idea here is to keep your local-ness, whatever that may be, just spread your network. And though the Baltimore Art Fair did do some of that by inviting peers running similar spaces across the country, I imagine there’s still more to be done.